New Castle News

March 9, 2013

Open records law in line for revisions

John Finnerty

CNHI — Charles Hoyer, a convicted child molester serving time in state prison, filed an open records request in 2011 seeking a tax document related to a county detective.

The Lebanon County school district rejected his request, arguing the document didn’t exist because the district had eliminated the occupational tax, and if it did exist, it would contain the home address of the detective.

Dissatisfied with the response, Hoyer filed an appeal with the Office of Open Records. That office determined the district would have to release the document if it had it, though under Pennsylvania law, home addresses of law enforcement officers are redacted when they are released to the public.

It was one 22 appeals Hoyer filed to the office of open records in 2011. In 2012, he was even busier, filing 39 appeals to the office.

Hoyer is not alone.

Prisoners account for 31 percent of the appeals filed at the Office of Open Records, executive director Terry Mutchler said. In Pennsylvania, almost all government documents are considered open to the public, but there are 30 exceptions, most focused on information that is personal or relates to matters of public security.

Government offices must explain which exception they believe is involved if they reject a request for a document. The citizen then has the right to ask the office to determine if the government office is complying with the law.

Last year, the office dealt with 2,188 appeals, up 25 percent over 2011.

In response to complaints from the Office of Open Records and other state agencies, Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, a Republican from Chester County, will introduce House Bill 444 this month to revise the Open Records Law in various 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 seeking public documents for commercial use and various clarifications about whether quasi-governmental agencies are public or not.

Erik Arneson, Pileggi’s communications and policy director, said the revision to the Open Records law would change the rules so inmates may only request documents containing personal information about them.

Pileggi’s language mirrors the approach taken in Wisconsin. New Jersey only bars inmates from seeking documents that might include personal information about the victims of the crimes that put the inmate in prison. Other states, including Virginia, have entirely excluded prisoners from access to open records.

In Utah, legislators debated whether there was a way to allow inmates access to the information without having the state spending money to print documents for them.

The Pennsylvania Open Records Office has 11 employees — including seven attorneys who hear appeals. The office is asking the state to provide the additional funding needed to add two attorneys and support staff, Mutchler said.

Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed budget would increase funding for the Open Records Office by about $37,000. But the $1.4 million proposed for the office is $400,000 short of what it needs, Mutchler said.

The attorneys are handling are about 400 cases each, Mutchler said.

In addition to the appeals, the office also is involved in about 200 court cases, in which either the government agency or the person who requested the document, appealed the open records office ruling.

Pileggi’s legislation would not completely eliminate prisoner appeals.

There were 63 appeals filed in 2012 involving disputes in which inmates wanted the prison system to provide documents the department of corrections insisted it did not have. In many cases, the prisoners were seeking legal documents, such as sentencing orders.

“In some cases, they just want the documents so they can have paper they turn over and use to write,” Mutchler said.

In the case of sentencing orders, inmates may want to know the exact number of days they are supposed to be incarcerated so they can keep track to make sure they don’t spend more time than necessary behind bars, she said.