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Open Records: Seeking Right-to-Know Information in PA

Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know law could undergo revisions during the 2013 legislative session.

According to the Office of Open Records Executive Director Terry Mutchler “a citizen’s right-to-know, sometimes known as freedom of information, fosters accountability, prevents abuses of power and promotes trust in government. Pennsylvania has codified this important right to access government records in Act 3 of 2008, called the Right-to-Know law.”

The law was signed on Feb. 14, 2008, and it took effect Jan. 1, 2009. As part of the new law, an Office of Open Records was established. The office’s mission is to enforce the law, and to serve as a resource to citizens, public officials and members of the media. Under the law, citizens do not have to prove that a record is public and that it should released.

A requester can file a Right-to-Know request the following ways:

- fax

- electronic mail

- in person

- U.S. mail

All records are presumed to be public records unless disclosure is barred by a state or federal law or regulation, or judicial order; privilege, such as attorney-client or doctor-patient; or a special exception. When you submit a Right-to-Know request, as the recipient of the request, an agency has five business days to respond in writing to grant the request; deny the request; or invoke a 30-day extension.

The 30-day extension includes: off-site location of records, staffing limitations, need for legal review or redaction, complex request or requester did not pay applicable fees as required, or failed to follow Agency policy. As a requester, the state provides a right to file an appeal when the request is deemed denied if the agency does not provide a timely response.

More information on Right-to-Know law can be found at the Office of Open Records. The Web site also provides a Citizens guide to requesting information.

Pending changes to the law are based on complaints received by the office. The Sharon Herald reported, “In response to complaints from the open records office and other state agencies, Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, a Chester County Republican, will introduce legislation, House Bill 444, later this month to revise the Open Records Law in a number of ways, including placing new limits on what kind of documents are available to prison inmates.

Other possible changes involve setting up a fee structure for those who are seeking public documents for commercial use, and a variety of clarifications about whether quasi-governmental agencies are public or not. Records of volunteer fire departments, for instance, would mostly be considered private. “Campus Police” would be considered the same as any other police department and expected to comply with the open records law.”

For story ideas, tips or information on getting started with citizen journalism in Pennsylvania, contact me directly at Pennsylvania@WatchdogWire.com.  Our transparency watchdog tip sheet is a great resource for aspiring citizen watchdogs.  If you’d like to report for Watchdog Wire – Pennsylvania , sign up here!

Jana Benscoter

Jana Benscoter is the editor of Watchdog Wire - Pennsylvania. Contact her at Pennsylvania@WatchdogWire.com for story ideas and ways to get involved in citizen journalism. Jana has worked in journalism for more than a decade, during which she’s covered a broad range of topics, including: business, education, local and state government, and political corruption. Jana has been published in The Boston Globe, The Daily Caller, Drexel Alumni Magazine, Carolina Journal, Guilford Woman Magazine, The Harrisburg-Patriot News, The High Point Enterprise, Kinston Free Press, Lincoln Tribune Online, the Rhinoceros Times, Smart Girl Politics, Triad Business Journal, The York Dispatch, and Wake Weekly. She won second place for investigative journalism in the North Carolina Press Association Winter Writer's competition in 2006. As an editor, she published a public policy magazine, and in 2009, she launched a monthly newspaper that highlighted North Carolina legislation. A Pennsylvania native, Jana attended college at University of Massachusetts Amherst and Boston campuses.

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