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Pa. public-records law changing

December 27, 2008|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. -- Pennsylvania state, county and local governments will be operating under a new set of rules in 2009 when a new Right-To-Know Law goes into effect.

"The big difference is the burden of proving a record is not public is on the agency, rather than on the members of the public," said Chambersburg Borough Secretary Tanya Mickey, who has been named the borough's open records officer.

That will be another difference, with governments designating to whom those records should go, Mickey said. The borough's updated policy and a form to request information soon will be available on Chambersburg's Web site (www.borough.chambersburg.pa.us), she said.

"The district has been working several months to fully comply with the law," which was passed in February, said Sylvia Rockwood, director of information services for the Chambersburg Area School District. "All district administrators have attended a two-hour training conducted by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

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"We've set clear procedures and notified all employees of the importance of the law."

The law provides that, once a request has been made, a government agency has five days to respond to the request and, if the information is not exempted under the law, up to 30 days to provide the requested information. An agency can request an extension of time to gather records, but if a request is denied, it has to be in writing with legal citations and there is an appeals procedure for the requester, according to the law.

That does not mean that any information requested by a member of the public will have to be obtained through a formal request, said Franklin County Deputy Chief Clerk Jean Byers, the county's open records officer.

"We sent out an e-mail to our division leaders asking them to have all the departments and agencies under them to compile a list of what we'd call normal requests ... that they'd continue to hand out without a request form," Byers said.

Requests will come to her in the County Commissioners Office to be forwarded to the proper agency, Byers said.

"We track it to make sure we get it back within the five-day period," Byers said.

The more recent the record, the more likely the public can access it online, Byers said. Results from the last few elections are available on the county's Web site (www.co.franklin.pa.us), she said.

The policy, itself a lengthy document, is available on the Web site as well, Byers said.

Going back for 10 years of results, however, will require staff to collect the information, and the county could require the requester to fill out a form, Byers said. While a government cannot charge a person for the research time involved in collecting data, hard copies will not be free, she said.

Citizens for Responsible Government requested and received some information from the school district on credit card expenditures and travel expenses of district officials, President Allen Piper said. He said his group might file a more extensive request under the new law covering those expenses over the previous three years, depending on the outcome of investigations the group requested as conducted by the Pennsylvania Auditor General's and Attorney General's offices.

The county, school district and borough of Chambersburg all adopted a fee of 25 cents per page, officials for those entities said. The cost of specialized documents, such as blueprints, will be based on the actual cost of reproducing them, Byers said.

Not every record is going to be open to the public, and Byers said there are about 30 exemptions in the law.

While a union contract is fair game, documents pertaining to negotiations in progress are not, Mickey said. Personnel information, such as performance ratings, letters of reference, Social Security numbers, driver's license numbers, information about juveniles and home addresses, are protected information, she said.

Records that, if they were released, could endanger the safety of an individual, jeopardize building security or reveal trade secrets also are exempt, along with personal notes, drafts of meeting minutes and some investigative information, according to the law.

There will be gray areas where it is not immediately clear whether all or part of a record should be open to public scrutiny or is covered by an exemption, Mickey said.

"Some of these will have to be taken on a case-by-case basis with a lot of common sense" and some legal advice, Mickey said.




Common questions and answers about how to file a request under Pennsylvania's new Right-to-Know Law.



Q: How do I request a record from a local, county or state agency?

A: You may make the request in person, by mail, fax or e-mail. You may make the request verbally, but to preserve your right to appeal a negative decision, you must put it in writing.

A standard request form can be downloaded from the state Office of Open Records Web site -- http://openrecords.state.pa.us -- and printed. Local agencies may use their own forms, but also must accept this one.

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