Did you know Spotlight PA is a nonprofit? Learn more about our nonpartisan journalism »
Skip to main content
Main content

Divided PA legislature passed relatively few bills

Plus, who owns centuries of Pa. historical records?

This is The Investigator, a free weekly newsletter with the top news from across Pennsylvania.
A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom producing investigative journalism for Pennsylvania.

December 21, 2023 | spotlightpa.org
Legislature's 2023, marijuana data, election errors, new crimes, rural benefits, contract canceled, historical records, locked out, and not covered.
Support Spotlight PA's independent, nonpartisan journalism for Pennsylvania and for a limited time, your gift will be DOUBLED.
We are just under $33,000 away from our year-end member drive goal with only 10 days left, and we need your help to cross the finish line! 

As a nonprofit, Spotlight PA’s unique investigative and public-service journalism depends on your support. Make a tax-deductible gift to Spotlight PA today and it will be DOUBLED thanks to a generous matching grant.

Thank you to the 1,359 people who have given so far, including Mark R., who said, “Because somebody has to keep an eye on what is going on in Harrisburg and politicians accountable.”

Join Mark and make a tax-deductible gift now »

You can also give via PayPal or Venmo, or send a check to: Spotlight PA, PO Box 11728, Harrisburg, PA 17108.

Pennsylvania’s divided legislature is reflecting on a 2023 dominated by deadlock and hoping the dynamic turns around when the second half of the two-year session begins in January.

Spotlight PA's Stephen Caruso and Kate Huangpu talked to General Assembly leaders who blamed partisanship and a lack of communication but who also expressed optimism for 2024

Also this week, Spotlight PA is making public data it obtained after an open records battle with the Pennsylvania Department of Health

The data — anonymized records of more than 1 million medical marijuana certifications in the state — was the basis of a Spotlight PA investigation earlier this year, and it shows the reasons why hundreds of thousands of patients qualify for a medical marijuana card.

Finally, Carter Walker of Votebeat reports on how election errors are rising in Pennsylvania as voting officials resign.  

Shop exclusive Spotlight PA gear and apparel at our new online store.
The news never looked so good.

That's right — our famous Spotlight PA tote back is back and on sale now for the first time in Spotlight PA's new store. Don't miss other items, including Spotlight PA hats, t-shirts, and limited-edition 'Now Serving the Truth' aprons. Shop now »

Proceeds benefit Spotlight PA's nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism that gets results for Pennsylvania.

"I understand the purpose. The problem is, theft is already illegal."

—State Rep. Emily Kinkead (D., Allegheny) on why she opposed two new laws that expanded or enhanced sentences for actions that are already crimes.


» A budget boost to payments for state-owned land will benefit rural Pa. counties

» Shapiro administration cancels $10.7M contract for Pa. voter roll system upgrade

» A mix of reform-minded and tough-on-crime justice bills are now law in Pa.

Who owns centuries of Pa. historical records?

What began in 2022 as a one-paragraph public records request has morphed into a full-blown court fight over who owns digital copies of Pennsylvania's historical records. 

Are they the property of the commonwealth? Or are the documents — which include birth and death certificates, veterans' burial cards, and slave records — fully controlled by a private company?

That question has pitted a New York City-based professional genealogist against the Pennsylvania agency in charge of a vast array of historical documents and artifacts, as well as Ancestry.com, an online genealogy company used by millions of people to search for family and other records. 

The genealogist is Alec Ferretti, a director at Reclaim The Records, a nonprofit that pushes governments to make genealogical information more broadly available.

The state agency is the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC), which in 2008 contracted with Ancestry to digitize a sweeping list of historical documents and make them available on the company’s website. Those records also include naturalization documents, prison records, and Civil War border claims and muster rolls, according to the contract.

Those digitized records, according to PHMC’s website, are free to Pennsylvania residents who create a user profile with Ancestry. 

Ferretti, however, isn’t a Pennsylvania resident. 

So in September of last year, Ferretti asked PHMC for all records the state agency turned over to Ancestry. He also asked for the metadata on the digitized documents, as well as any indexes Ancestry created for them.

PHMC denied the request, saying it had no responsive records in its possession. Ferretti appealed to Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records, an independent state agency that’s the first stop in deciding most disputes over access to government information.

According to legal briefs in the case, PHMC said that documents Ancestry eventually digitized encompassed a huge amount of data — approximately 45 terabytes — that would have cost the agency roughly $300,000 annually to maintain. So it chose to have Ancestry house the scanned records for the state.

Copying those records, indexes, and metadata, as Ferretti requested, would be considered a breach of its contract with Ancestry, PHMC argued.

Ferretti countered that Ancestry could at the very least transfer the data using USB hard drives. He noted that because he doesn’t live in Pennsylvania, he would have to pay a subscription fee to the company to access the records. He also argued that though Ancestry houses the documents and their data, the state is their “legal custodian.”

Ownership of the commonwealth’s physical records is not contested. Those are available to Pennsylvania residents and nonresidents alike at the state archives in Harrisburg. 

The Office of Open Records sided with Ferretti early this year, but the battle didn’t end. PHMC appealed to Commonwealth Court. Soon after, Ancestry stepped in, arguing that its work digitizing and indexing the records is proprietary. It also argued that though the company agreed under the contract to license copies of the digitized records back to the state, it owns the work product, and said it didn’t get a chance to weigh in on the initial Office of Open Records case. 

For now, both Ferretti’s request and the larger question of who owns the records remain unresolved. Commonwealth Court kicked the matter back down to the Office of Open Records and instructed the agency to consider Ancestry’s arguments.

The office told lawyers in the case it expects to issue a new ruling in the case mid-next month — but that it could possibly be longer. Terry Mutchler, Ferretti’s lawyer, said regardless of the outcome, the matter will again likely end up in appellate court.

Added Mutchler: “At the end of the day, here is the question: is it a corporation that owns the historical records of Pennsylvania — or is it going to be the people of Pennsylvania?” Angela Couloumbis, Spotlight PA

🏆 NEXT QUESTION: Did you stay on top of the news this week? Prove it with the latest edition of The Great PA News Quiz: A pop star’s era, Tom Wolf’s new home, and the end of the budget impasse
This week's top news story in Pennsylvania'GASLAND' RETURNS: The state will allow Coterra Energy Inc. to drill gas wells in Dimock Township, whose residents were featured in the documentary Gasland complaining of fracking-related health issues, the Associated Press reports. Coterra was banned from drilling in the township for a dozen years because it polluted the local water supply. 

This week's second top news story in PennsylvaniaBIG HEALTH: Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals is planning to merge with Lehigh Valley Health Network, LehighValleyNews.com reports. The deal isn't final, but if it goes through, the resulting system of 30 hospitals would stretch from Scranton to South Jersey and would be the second-biggest in the commonwealth, behind only UPMC. This isn't the only big merger (potentially) happening in Pennsylvania. California-based Kaiser Permanente's acquisition of Geisinger Health is currently under review.

This week's third top news story in PennsylvaniaLOCKED OUT: Secrecy in local government is increasing, according to a report from CHNI News and the AP. Data analysis by a freedom of information expert at the University of Florida found that local governments' compliance with open records requests decreased from 63% to 42% between 2010 and 2021. "High fees, delays and outright refusals from local governments to release information are among the common complaints," the news organizations report.

DEMS AT ODDS? Pennsylvania's Democratic State Committee met in Harrisburg over the weekend but did not formally approve a resolution “in opposition to private school vouchers” — a formal rebuke of Gov. Shapiro's stance on the issue — as expected. The Inquirer (paywall) reports a rules committee tabled the matter after national Democrats expressed concern about the optics ahead of 2024

NOT COVERED: More than 145,000 children in Pennsylvania don't have health insurance, according to a report from the Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children. WESA reports that Pennsylvania is one of only three states in which the percentage of uninsured children increased in 2022. Studies show that uninsured children are at greater risk for preventable hospitalizations and have higher mortality rates, according to WESA.

» APAnimal cruelty charges spur calls for official’s resignation

» BPKrasner attacks new law that allows AG to take over SEPTA cases

» THE HILL: Fetterman says he’ll work to block ‘outrageous’ US Steel sale

» PENNLIVE: Shapiro’s job approval rating slips but remains strong

» POLITICO: Judge orders Perry to disclose 1,600 messages to feds

Support Spotlight PA's trusted, nonpartisan reporting and for a limited time your gift will be DOUBLED!
Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org.

TIS THE SEASON (Case No. 235): You can catch me but not throw. I'm most popular in December. What am I?
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: The letter "n." (Find last week's clue here.) 

Congrats to Alan B., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Maureen G., Annette I., Michael H., Jeff B., Fred O., Peter S., Phil C., Joe S., Lynda G., Mary S., Connie K., Jennifer H., Cosette J., Amy H., Alberta V., John C., and Beth T.
Like The Investigator? Share it with a friend.

Forwarded this newsletter? Subscribe here.

Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan & nonprofit newsroom producing investigative and public-service journalism that holds the powerful to account and drives positive change in Pennsylvania.

Copyright © Spotlight PA. All rights reserved.

Spotlight PA
PO Box 11728
Harrisburg, PA 17108-1728


This email was sent to: <<Email Address>>

You're receiving this email because you signed up for The Investigator. 

Receiving too many emails from Spotlight PA?

To change your newsletter subscriptions and frequency, you can update your preferences.

To stop receiving fundraising messages, you can update your preferences and select "Opt out of Fundraising."

To stop receiving ALL EMAILS from Spotlight PA, including all of our investigations and newsletters, you can completely unsubscribe here.