Imagine you are the parent of an infant who tragically died and you wanted to see the results of your baby’s autopsy, but you were denied access to those records.
Or ask yourself how — as a taxpayer in a Pennsylvania school district — you would respond to being denied access to district records of a severance package paid to a terminated public school administrator.
Every day in Pennsylvania, citizens are denied access to records and meetings that by right they should be allowed to see. Sometimes, the government officers in charge of these decisions are properly using discretion, but that’s not always the case.
For instance, there’s the recent case of a 17-year-old killed in a car accident. The estate requested access to the full traffic report, but was denied. Why?
This week, these questions are worth pondering. It’s Sunshine Week — a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public’s right to know.
Too often, the issue of access to records can be minimized as a media issue. Rhetoric or politics can sometimes obscure the conversation and challenge of establishing a system that helps ensure the principles of open government. In reality, the issue of open records and governmental transparency is a bedrock principle critical to the very real and daily lives of every citizen everywhere, including the great state of Pennsylvania.
Thankfully, in our state, we have occasion to celebrate some pretty incredible accomplishments that have made Pennsylvania more accountable. Yet we can also take this time to acknowledge the work still to be done.
Our group is called the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition and we are celebrating our 10th anniversary of offering training to citizens and lawyers. We also produce a website that 24,000 visitors each month turn to for help and information, among other services. During Sunshine Week, we are inviting our fellow Pennsylvanians to learn a little bit about the progress made and the challenges we continue to face in the effort to make sure our government and its officers are working for us with the kind of transparency we not only deserve, but require and demand.
We also ask for your help in this quest.
Seven years ago, an updated Right-to-Know law was passed by the state legislature and signed by the governor, and a quasi-judicial agency called the Office of Open Records was created to interpret this law. Before this law passed, Pennsylvania was infamous for giving its citizens less information than almost any other state in the country. Now we’re known for having one of the best laws.
On the whole, Pennsylvanians should be pleased with the overall improvements. But we have also faced challenges with the interpretation of this law as well as its implementation.
To keep up with the courts’ rulings on the Right-to-Know Law and the many legislative amendments offered that would affect it — not always for the better — please visit the PaFOIC website from time to time.
Our Sunshine Act, which provides the ground rules for access to public meetings, is also better than most. But we lack the ability to enforce it or punish those who purposely violate it.
Pennsylvania courts are currently considering an update to their access policy. We urge all citizens to review the proposed changes and weigh in with public comments by the due date of April 8. We will be posting our comments to our website. so stay tuned.
In our role of standing with both citizens and government to balance the sensitive and sometimes competing interests in open government, the PaFOIC invites you to look at the work we do in ensuring access to government for all people and best practices in public records digitization and management. You’ll see the work to shape the policy and the practice of open records access continues on a daily basis. That’s very good news for us all.
-Corinna Vecsey Wilson, Esq., Executive Director,
Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition