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Public access to public records is paramount

March 18, 2007|by BILL KOHLER

I realize that for many people this week is one of March madness and dreams of Spring.

This week past also should be noted because it was Sunshine Week, a nationwide effort by the newspaper industry to increase access to public information and to generally increase the flow of information in our country.

I'm not going to pretend to be an expert or an authority on the subject. There are ombudsmen at big papers and a lot of attorneys at newspaper associations who fill that bill.

I'm not even going to try to pull the wool over your eyes and tell you I read every article on the subject and that I have "Sunshine Law" bookmarked on my browser.

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I don't.

Chances are, you might never need to access a public record. Chances are, no one in your family ever will need to access a public record.

However, what I do want to share is why it's important and why journalists care so much about it.

Every state is different. I work with reporters based in West Virginia and Pennsylvania so I am constantly referring to different sets of rules and guidelines when questions arise about open meetings, violations and access to records.

The key for us - and for members of a free society - is that everyone knows what is available and how to get it. The problem lies with the key holders of the information. Sometimes, they don't even know the rules.

Many states are making efforts to improve their right to know laws, including Maryland and Pennsylvania. As evidenced by our multi-story package in last Sunday and Monday's papers, there's still plenty of work to do. In Maryland, only six of 23 "auditors" - people who were sent out to retrieve or view copies of their community's Comprehensive Emergency Plan - were able to obtain the document. Eight were denied outright while the remainder experienced difficulties in their attempts to get the information.

In Washington County, the document was able to be viewed 49 days after the initial request was made.

The time element is a concern, but other problems are clear, including the most disturbing - whether public officials even know their responsibilities under the law.

In Pennsylvania, my home state, a grand revision is overdue.

Many newspapers this week opined that the state's "Right to Know Law" is one of the worst in the land. The law is 50 years old and enables the government - from the state down to the local level - to keep many of its public records private.

The law has many flaws. Instead of narrowly defining what might be excluded from public disclosure, it defines what makes a public record.

Most disturbing is that it places a potentially expensive legal burden on citizens who are requesting the records rather than on the governments and its officers who withhold the information.

At least in Pennsylvania, help might be on the way. Lawmakers and Gov. Ed Rendell are pledging efforts to make the revision of the "Right to Know Law" a priority in 2007. Let's hope that the Keystone State's revision is complete, switching the burden to the government and its paid employees instead of the public.

Perhaps, it could even be a model for other states to follow.

Kudos to Rendell and the other lawmakers.

So, back to my point: Why should we all care?

For a free society, the accessibility to government is paramount. Everyone should have access to agendas, minutes of meetings, payment records, orders and decisions - and not have to prove that it must be made public, which is the way the current Pennsylvania law reads.

This is one of the reasons why our country is different than others.

Open access helps keep governments honest and holds them accountable.

Journalists use open access and the laws that protect it to fulfill one of our top priorities - being a watchdog of the government.

We will continue to monitor our local governments and will continue to report on any progress as well as any digressions on the state and federal levels.

Bill Kohler is Tri-State editor of The Herald-Mail. Reach him at 800-626-6397, ext. 2023 or by e-mail at billk@herald-mail.com.

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