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Access to records in Pa. will change next year

September 11, 2008|By JENNIFER FITCH

GREENCASTLE, Pa. - The Antrim Township Supervisors used a provision in Pennsylvania's Right to Know law to withhold a staffing study from the public for three weeks after it served as their basis for dismissing six employees.

The supervisors had five business days to respond to written requests from The Herald-Mail for the study, then an additional 30 calendar days to redact information not considered public information under the statute and case law.

"The general law does say that if an agency feels a public record needs to be redacted they do have the opportunity and the availability to take the time they need to take up to 30 days to do such redaction. However, any information that is redacted from a public document is treated as a denial and is appealable," said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspapers Association.

That will change, however, in 2009 when a retooled Open Records Act takes effect.

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"Once the new law takes effect, there are provisions that say once that study was presented to a quorum at a public meeting, it becomes public at that point. Just presented at a public meeting it's a public record whether or not they take official action based on it," Melewsky said.

Act 3 of 2008 was signed Feb. 14 to update the open records law first enacted in 1957.

One of the most notable changes from the existing legislation is the creation of an Office of Open Records to handle appeals made concerning the denial of information. Under the existing law, a person requesting information has little recourse beyond suing the agency denying the information.

"The requester would have to file and win a lawsuit in order for any penalties to be imposed," Melewsky said. "There are penalties in the act, which include the awarding of attorney fees. In the cases I've heard of, the fees were over $12,000 in one case, over $40,000 in the other and another $30,000 in the third case."

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