New Castle News

Columns

January 20, 2014

Mitchel Olszak: Public can make use of Pennsylvania’s open records procedures

NEW CASTLE — When you’ve been in the news business for a while, you learn a few things about government and records.

And one of them is that some people in government recognize the public’s right to know, and others do not.

Here at the New Castle News, we spend a considerable amount of time dealing with public records. Many of our news stories use them to provide information to readers.

Generally speaking, we get cooperation from government sources when we seek records. It’s always helpful to get documents quickly and efficiently.

For a newspaper, the clock is always ticking. And if we have to wait for basic information, that causes problems.

Most people in government understand this, and they know that reporters seeking records aren’t doing it out of idle curiosity. They are trying to do their jobs.

But every now and then, you run into someone in government who doesn’t get it. These are the people who fail to fully grasp they are public servants and the records they retain ultimately belong to the people.

They are the main reason Pennsylvania has a fairly new open records law. The measure dramatically expands the state definition of a public record and creates a mechanism for assuring access to such documents.

Under the law, every municipality, school district and state agency must designate an open records officer to handle document requests. And upon the filing of such a request, the government entity has a time limit for either complying with it or explaining why it will not.

While news organizations frequently seek and employ public records, it’s worth noting the majority of open records requests in Pennsylvania do not come from journalists. Instead, they come from private citizens.

The Pennsylvania Office of Open Records maintains a website — openrecords.state.pa.us — that contains considerable material on what is, and is not, public record. It also describes the procedures for obtaining public records, as well as the options individuals can pursue if a request is rejected.

The open records process can be cumbersome, especially if government officials aren’t interested in being cooperative. While locating and reviewing some records may take time, in other instances documents are readily accessible and can be turned over almost instantly.

But generally, agencies have five days to respond to a request. And they can extend this to 30 days, basically by saying they need extra time.

The law as it now stands is better than it used to be. But opportunities for foot dragging and denial on the part of officials who fail to respect their open records responsibilities linger. In short, accountability in Pennsylvania remains a work in progress.

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