Right-to-know benefits public

December 14, 2008|By BILL KOHLER

The right to know is not about the press, it's about the people.

On Tuesday, an Antrim Township supervisor got that message reversed.

Curtis Myers, the board chairman and interim township administrator, complained at this week's regular meeting that the press has cost township taxpayers about $7,500 with "all of its right-to-know requests."

Without stating the obvious, I have to point out that when newspapers ask for information, we are asking as an agent for the residents of Antrim Township.

One thing that makes our country so great is that anyone can go to the Antrim Township office or a fax machine and file a right-to-know request for any document that is deemed public.


Now, I readily admit I'm no expert, and in fact, I submitted an incorrect right-to-know request to Antrim Township in August after the supervisors used a $30,000 survey to systematically terminate the employment of six employees, including the township manager.

What I do know is that most records and documents should and must be made public and that The Herald-Mail -- or any other media group worth its salt -- will continue to flood an office with requests until we get what we are legally permitted to have.

Now if the township would have put some of the documents online or simply given them to our reporter, Kate Alexander, when she asked, we would not have had to submit right-to-know requests.

Very few things done in local government -- or at any level of government -- are not open for public scrutiny and review. Historically, Pennsylvania has made obtaining public information very difficult for citizens and the press over the last several decades, but it has made tremendous strides with the new Right to Know Law that goes into effect Jan. 1.

I don't have the space to get into that now, but I guess what rankles me the most is that a township supervisor who has been in office since the start of 2006 (that's nearly three full years) doesn't seem to know what constitutes a public record and doesn't realize the importance of a transparent government.

This is not intended as a personal attack on Myers because I don't know him and don't know what motivates him or anyone else who runs for public office. Public service is difficult, thankless work, and I respect those who take on such a daunting task.

However, for an incumbent supervisor who is now the interim manager of a township of more than 10,000 people to chastise reporters at a public meeting for costing the taxpayers money in this way is ridiculous.

And to further fire me up, Myers and other supervisors several times have refused to give Alexander and other local reporters public documents or even answer simple questions during meetings. The reporters instead are told to file a right-to-know request the following morning.

I feel like a kid who gets told to do one thing by his mother and then gets yelled at by his father for doing it.

We are told to file a right-to-know request for information that could be handed over by a township employee, and then we are blasted during a budget discussion for doing exactly what he said to do.

What the township should do is this:

1. Make sure they have a right-to-know officer on staff who's up to speed with the new state law by the end of the month.

When the press asks for something it shouldn't have, such as personnel files and minutes from an executive session, then officials won't have to pay their solicitor $125 per hour to do something that someone on staff can handle.

2. Make sure all of the supervisors and the new township administrator know what constitutes a public record so the taxpayers don't keep paying $125 per hour for a lawyer to take one look at each request and say, "OK, here's my bill." The most important public records are agendas, minutes, bills and budget documents.

3. Post meeting agendas on the Web site and at the township municipal building by 10 a.m. the day before the meeting.

This is not an indictment of just one short-staffed township. Every school board, county commission, borough and city should heed this advice.

Government should live and operate by the theory that everything is open and transparent.

Now that's looking out for the taxpayers.

Bill Kohler is Tri-State editor of The Herald-Mail. He can be reached at 1-800-626-6397, ext. 2023, or by e-mail at

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