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

Spotlight PA's open-records naughty and nice list

Plus, an extra serving of riddles for the holiday.

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.

November 23, 2023 | spotlightpa.org
Happy Thanksgiving, compassionate release, solar project, doctor data, naughty and nice list, charter choice, Shapiro skeptics, and closed bidding.
Support Spotlight PA's independent, nonpartisan journalism and for a limited time, your gift will be DOUBLED.

It's Thanksgiving, and we at Spotlight PA have a tradition to uphold: giving thanks for our readers and supporting members. 

We are proud of the award-winning, nonpartisan, paywall-free journalism we produce all year long, and especially proud of the buy-in it continues to receive from the readers who rely on it, trust it, and share it. 

If you're thankful for the dogged journalists at Spotlight PA, support their work as we prepare for another critical election year.

If you make a contribution and support Spotlight PA nowas a special holiday bonus, your contribution will be DOUBLED — meaning today, you can have two times the impact and give the gift of facts and truth. 

Whether you value Spotlight PA's newsletters, stories, events, or election guides, we are truly grateful, because at the end of the day, we are here to serve you. In a time of cutbacks and closures, Spotlight PA is blazing a new path forward for nonpartisan investigative journalism in Pennsylvania.

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

The time is now. The future is in our hands. Make a tax-deductible gift today.

Thank you, and Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at Spotlight PA.

Warm wishes,
Colin Deppen
Spotlight PA, Newsletter Editor


"I would’ve been happy if he could’ve come home with one year of good health."

—Mary Buffaloe, whose dying brother Raymond Caliman was released from prison under the state's compassionate release law

» A dying man won release from prison after Spotlight PA highlighted his case. It shouldn’t be that hard, advocates say.

» How a proposed solar project prompted this rural Pa. township to face its mining past

» Court orders Pa. health department to release doctor data for medical marijuana certifications

Spotlight PA's open-records naughty and nice list

Earlier this year, in the warm, waning light of late summer, I filed the same two records requests with all 67 Pennsylvania counties. For those doing the math, yes, that is 134 requests, more than I’ve ever filed for one story. 

The idea was to learn how much money local governments and jails statewide spend on mental health care. My long term goal is to understand how money, or a lack thereof, has led to what experts are calling a crisis of mental health needs in the state’s jails.

The requests were expansive — I asked for 23 years of records — but I tried to be specific enough to help officials fulfill what I knew was a big ask. 

I anticipated some resistance, but summer softened my skepticism. It was sunny outside. I was optimistic.

Now, as we stare down the cold, dark days of winter, my outlook has similarly dimmed. 

Taking cues from a fellow truth-seeker, someone more acquainted with processing a large number of letters and making clear-eyed assessments of their merit, I’ve had to make a list. And I’ve checked it more than twice.

In the spirit of the holidays, and of open access to public information, I now present a Naughty and Nice List of Pennsylvania Counties, based on the responses I received from those 134 requests. Danielle Ohl, Spotlight PA

Nice: Armstrong, and the 42 other counties that provided records. 

Armstrong County perhaps set a record for the fastest response. The county sent two decades of documents — 75 pages of spending records — in five days. Other counties big and small, urban and rural, provided reams of contracts, budgets, and reports. This year, I am thankful for every single page.

Naughty: Allegheny, and other counties that dismissed the requests as too broad.

Though dozens of counties that received my requests responded with gifts of documents galore, a small group looked at the same letters and replied “Bah humbug.”

Allegheny County and others (including Clinton, Schuylkill, and Venango) denied one or both requests as lacking specificity. I received no courtesy call to clarify, or an email asking me to narrow my time frame. Nothing but no. 

Nice: Fayette, and counties that did call. 

Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law does not require government agencies to contact requesters with clarifying questions, but many agencies do so to save everyone time and energy.

Fayette County behavioral health administrator Dave Rider went above and beyond, spending almost an hour on the phone to help me learn about the kinds of records available in his county and others.

Naughty: Montgomery, and counties that made me refile. 

The Right-to-Know Law requires government agencies to accept requests from the public however they come, whether by email, fax, or snail mail. So it was vexing when several counties, including Bucks, Chester, Montgomery, and York, responded to my initial email asking me to refile using their online portal. I did it, but I wasn’t filled with holiday cheer about it.

🏆 NEXT QUESTION: Did you stay on top of the news this week? Prove it with the latest edition of The Great PA News Quiz: Thanksgiving travel, 2024 debate, and another political pay bump
This week's top news story in PennsylvaniaMIDWIFE ALARMS: Midwife Karen Carr drew scrutiny in Pennsylvania following a 2003 home birth that ended with the mother getting a C-section in a hospital. Carr was investigated for practicing nurse midwifery without a license, but Pennsylvania dropped the case. Now, WaPo (paywall) reports Carr has been linked to a string of home births gone wrong in several states, some with devastating results.

This week's second top news story in PennsylvaniaCHARTER CHOICE: Pennsylvania's pro-"school choice" Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro is appointing new members to the state board that reviews charter school appeals. The Inquirer (paywall) reports the picks, some of whom appear open to the industry, come months after Republicans told the paper they'd struck a budget season deal with Shapiro to change the makeup of the board long seen as industry-hostile.

This week's third top news story in PennsylvaniaSHAPIRO SKEPTICS: Environmentalists are divided over Shapiro's deal with a fracking company to collect data on air emissions and water quality at well sites. The administration is calling it the most intensive independent study of fracking in the nation. But some environmentalists see it as little more than public relations and perhaps a model for industry self-regulation, Capital & Main reports.

CLOSED BIDDING: The $73.2 million contract at the center of a juvenile detention controversy in Allegheny County was issued with no open bidding and virtually no input from the public or government oversight. Several outlets collaboratively report that exemptions were granted to skirt the traditional bidding process and put a contractor with a checkered past in charge of reopening a shuttered facility.

CAPITOL PAY: Pennsylvania lawmakers, already among the highest paid in the U.S., are getting a raise next month. PennLive (paywall) reports the 3.5% pay hike starts Dec. 1 and pushes yearly salaries to $106,422 — or $8,869 a month. Last year's raise pushed lawmakers into six figures for the first time. State law ties the pay to the consumer price index. A raise for judges and executive branch officials is also coming.

» AP: Shapiro says undone business includes vouchers, school funding

» CAP-STAR: Pa. may lower police academy fitness requirement 

» INQUIRER: Kevin Bethel will be Philly's next police commissioner

» TRIBLIVE: PGH officials propose encampments with electricity, water

» WITF: Latino entrepreneurship on the rise in Pennsylvania

Find this week's answers here.

DON'T SPEAK (Case No. 227): What is a question you can never say yes to? 

HOTSPOTS (Case No. 228):  Why is it always so hot in the corner of a room? 

SUPPLY CHANGE (Case No. 229):  What is black when you buy it, red when you use it, and gray when you throw it away?

WOOD WIFI (Case No. 230): How do trees access the internet?

UNDERCOVER (Case No. 231): Four children and their pet dog were walking under a small umbrella. But none of them became wet. How? 

Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: Starting. (Find last week's clue here.) 

Congrats to Anthony W., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Annette I., Mary B., and Fred O.
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.