The right to know, or the right to no?

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by Leah Samuel | PublicSource

After getting a parking ticket at Pittsburgh International Airport, a driver requested a copy of the Allegheny Police Department’s report of the incident. The department didn’t respond.

A parent asked the Ligonier Valley School District for documents detailing planned teacher layoffs. The school district said it had no such documents.

A reporter asked Middle Smithfield Township for maps of local sewer lines. The township refused to turn them over, saying that could jeopardize the security of the sewage system.

Eventually, each of these individuals appealed to the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, which tries to resolve disputes between citizens asking for information and agencies that don’t want to give it.

But they should not have had to appeal, said Terry Mutchler, executive director of the office.

“Every government record is presumed to be open,” she said, “and the agency has to prove why it shouldn’t be.”

That requirement is one of the reforms made to Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law in 2008 amendments, which also created the OOR.

“At its core, participatory democracy decries locked files and closed doors,” said the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in its Open Government Guide. How, they asked, can a citizen carry out his responsibilities to challenge government decisions when government information is secret?

But five years after the Pennsylvania law’s overhaul, getting government records at the municipal, county and state levels is still often difficult.

“Anybody who thought that passing the new law would make things easier is completely wrong,” said Kim de Bourbon, executive director of the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition, an organization made up of newspaper editors, attorneys and librarians.

“Agencies actively try to find ways to deny requests,” de Bourbon added.

Sometimes government agencies go so far as to use deception. In 2011, the Department of Environmental Protection denied a request for part of a database, even after the requestor appealed to the OOR.

The DEP claimed that providing the information would mean “trawling through raw data” and “creating a new record,” which government agencies are not required to do under the law.

But the Commonwealth Court struck down that claim in September, after the DEP admitted it had the information in database form and was able to retrieve it.

Many local and state agency officials still aren’t used to the five-year-old requirements for openness, said Mutchler.

“They’ll ask me, ‘Why do they want this?’ and I’ll tell them to forget who’s asking for the information and simply apply the law,” she said.

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