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The FOI Advocate is a compendium of ideas, edited story excerpts and other materials from a variety of Web sites, as well as original concepts and analysis. When the information comes directly from another source, it will be attributed and a link will be provided whenever possible. The blog relies on the accuracy and integrity of the original sources cited. We will correct errors and inaccuracies when we become aware of them.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

A GREAT idea in Pennsylvania...

As support for providing greater access to public records grows, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association is providing in-depth interviews with sponsors of open records legislation on its blog, www.passopenrecords.org.

Jamie Blaine, a former newspaper publisher who edits the blog, sat down with Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, sponsor of Senate Bill 1, and Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-Fayette, a freshman lawmaker who is sponsoring House Bill 443. Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Allegheny, who also has sponsored open records legislation, Senate Bill 765, is expected to provide an interview in the near future.

Blaine asked the sponsors about their motivation for strengthening the state’s Right To Know Law and questioned them on specifics of their bills, including how they would treat lawmakers’ records, whether Penn State’s records should be subject to the law, and which exemptions to access they believe are necessary.

“Lawmakers are saying this is a priority issue for the General Assembly so we asked the sponsors of the legislation exactly what they are expecting and what they are hoping to accomplish through their measures,” said Blaine. “We will post their responses on the blog.”

PNA has been calling for more government openness for years but had been met in the past with significant opposition from legislators and others. Tim Williams, PNA President, said that last year taxpayers across Pennsylvania rediscovered their collective voice in demanding government accountability. People want better and easier access to government information, and lawmakers are listening, he added.

Pennsylvania has a reputation for having one of the worst open records laws in the country, and a 2002 survey by the government watchdog group Better Government Association ranked Pennsylvania’s open records environment 48th out of the 50 states. The commonwealth tied with Alaska. Only Alabama and South Dakota were considered worse. On the final report card, Pennsylvania received a grade of F.

As part of its reform effort, PNA also is sponsoring the Open Records Challenge, which asks citizens to obtain open records from their communities and share their experiences on the blog. The deadline for the Challenge is Oct. 5 and information is available at www.passopenrecords.org. Winners will be announced at an event on Oct. 15.

PNA believes Pennsylvania's open records law must be amended to include the following:

1. Acknowledgment that records belong to the public

The public is entitled to know and be informed fully about the conduct and activities of government.

2. Improved definition of "public record" and a presumption of access

Records in the possession or control of a public agency must be presumed to be accessible to the public. The law should include specific exemptions for records that are not public.

3. Burden of proof on agency

In Pennsylvania, the person seeking access must prove a right to that access. In most states, however, the burden is on the agency to show that specific information is not public under the law.

4. Broader definition of "agency"

The definition of "agency" must include the General Assembly, state-related universities and any organization or entity that relies substantially on taxpayers' money.

5. Administrative appeal/Office of Access

Pennsylvania must create an Office of Access to hear appeals and furnish advisory guidelines, opinions and other appropriate information about the laws to both agencies and citizens.

6. Meaningful penalties

Penalties for open records law violations need to be enforced and the fines increased to make them meaningful.

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