Pa. leaders begin efforts to expand open-records laws

By Mark Scolforo

Associated Press

HARRISBURG - Tim Mahoney had just won the Democratic primary for a Fayette County seat in the state House last year when he paid a lawyer about $4,100 to draft a top-to-bottom revision of the Pennsylvania Right-to-Know Law.

He campaigned on the ambitious 34-page proposal, and introduced the bill as one of his first acts upon taking the seat.

"It needs to happen," Mahoney said. "We can't be in the dark up here anymore."

As newspapers around the country highlight public-access issues during Sunshine Week, which started yesterday, Mahoney's bill, which has attracted dozens of cosponsors, is one of several signs that change may soon come to what has been called one of the weakest open-records laws in the country:

Gov. Rendell plans to propose a significant widening of the Right-to-Know Law this month.

The new Democratic chairwoman of the House State Government Committee calls revising the law a priority.

The Senate majority leader is working on his own amendments to the law.

And the soon-to-come second phase of the Speaker's Legislative Reform Commission is expected to consider changes to both the Right-to-Know and Sunshine (open meetings) Laws.

"I think there is a recognition that changes need to be made, that the law is inadequate," said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause of Pennsylvania.

Gayle C. Sproul, president of the nascent Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition, said the appetite for revisiting the law has been increased by fallout from the ill-fated 2005 legislative pay raise, including the defeat of 24 incumbent state lawmakers last year.

"I think this is the right time for this to happen," she said.

For 50 years, Pennsylvania law has guaranteed access only to accounts, vouchers, contracts, minutes, orders or decisions - and court rulings have further narrowed the definition.

Open-records advocates have long sought to define all Pennsylvania government records as public records, then provide a list of specific exceptions - the approach most other states take.

Mahoney's bill would accomplish that, along with establishing a state government agency to help people obtain government records and information, tightening penalties for officials who violate the law, and forcing every agency to provide its financial records electronically.

A policy aide to Rendell said last week that the governor also supported making all records open beyond a list of exceptions and wanted to establish an open-records ombudsman's office.

Rep. Babette Josephs (D., Phila.), chairwoman of the State Government Committee, which normally handles open-records legislation, said she didn't "see any problem at all" in changing the definition of a public record and putting the onus on governments to prove that a record is not public. She stopped short of endorsing Mahoney's bill, saying she needed to study it.

"I would like to see much more available to the public in a form that is easy to access and useful to them," Josephs said.

In the state Senate, Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) said he wants to broaden the Right-to-Know Law to include financial records of the legislature, the judicial branch, and the four state-related universities - Pennsylvania State, Pittsburgh, Temple and Lincoln.

He said he also wants to make clear that the law applies to the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, which has fought news organizations' attempts to review its records.

Senate Republican lawyer Steve MacNett said the GOP is also considering shortening the time government agencies have to respond to records requests and changing how agency appeals are handled.

Seeking Sunshine

The Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition has been formed to work for the right of Pennsylvania citizens to obtain public information from local governments and the state. The founders are journalists, librarians, lawyers, educators, and leaders of community groups.

"Our coalition is intended to be just that - a coalition of Pennsylvania citizens from all walks of life, who share the belief that the best government is an open one," said Gayle Sproul, a lawyer from the Philadelphia firm Levine, Sullivan, Koch & Schulz, who was chosen as the group's first president.

The coalitionwill build a Web site and publish educational materials, a key mission being to educate citizens, groups and government officials about the importance of open government and how they can use their rights to get public records. The group also will help organizations or citizens who run into difficulty obtaining public records.

In open-government cases of statewide importance, the coalition plans to help citizens obtain legal representation.

The group will also monitor proposed state and federal laws, regulations and court decisions and provide information to state officials to encourage discussion of open-government changes in Pennsylvania.