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How to understand & scrutinize local government

Plus: Pa. alleges improper denials, delays in mortgage relief

This is Talk of the Town, a free weekly newsletter delivering top news from State College and the surrounding region.

March 23, 2023
Support local investigative journalism! If each Talk of the Town subscriber gives just $15/month, we will meet our fundraising goal for Spotlight PA’s State College bureau this year! Contribute now. As a special bonus, all gifts made today will be DOUBLED by the Benter Foundation as part of our March Member Drive.
Inside this edition: Introducing How Local Government Works, a new Talk of the Town series to engage and inform readers about how their municipalities are run. And hey — happy spring! 🌸

In January, I hosted an event that highlighted how Pennsylvania’s system of fragmented local governments hinders public oversight. The level of interest in the topic and the number of questions from attendees overwhelmed me, delighted me — and it gave me an idea. What if I answered your questions about the commonwealth’s more than 2,500 municipalities on a regular basis?

How Local Government Works is a new series in Talk of the Town. The series will focus on issues and trends in Pennsylvania local governments and provide tools for you to hold your local officials accountable. Have a question about your local government? Email me at mxian@spotlightpa.org and I’ll answer it here. 

Have you ever wondered how your municipality makes a decision?

Perhaps you see a renovation project going on and want to understand the need for the makeover or its costs. The meeting minutes of a planning commission or a contract with builders, among other kinds of public records, might answer your questions.

Where should you look? This information may not be available online, but you might be able to obtain it by asking for it.

Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law grants public access to all government records unless their disclosure is barred due to specific exceptions, such as a protective order or doctor-patient privilege.

Understanding the basics of the law can help you follow the decisions of state and municipal governments. Here’s what you should know:

Assume a record is public

Under the Right-to-Know Law, all records are presumed to be public records, and the burden is on government agencies to establish why they might not be available.

Commonwealth agencies, including the offices of the governor and attorney general; local agencies like boroughs, townships, school boards, and authorities; and legislative bodies are covered by the law. Notably, Pennsylvania courts and other judicial agencies only need to provide financial records under the law.

What are public records?

The open records law defines a broad range of information as a record, as long as it “documents a transaction or activity of an agency and that is created, received or retained pursuant to law or in connection with a transaction, business or activity of the agency.” Basically, if a record involves a government agency or public funds, the public deserves access to it.

Public meeting minutes, emails relating to an agency’s business, contracts, and payrolls involving public funds are some examples of public records.

Making a request

Any legal resident of the United States can submit a request under the law. Requesters do not need to explain the reasons why they seek the information, but should keep the ask limited in subject matter, specific in scope, and within a certain time frame.

Doing some research before submitting a request can be worthwhile. The information you seek could already be publicly accessible. (If that’s the case, an agency may tell you just that.) 

Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records maintains a list of all open records officers in the commonwealth. Before making a request, consider getting in touch with an officer to find out how their agency keeps records and what wording would identify what you’re looking for. Check out the Right-to-Know case law index published by the Office of Open Records to find court interpretations of how the law should work.

Agencies have to respond to your request within five business days of submission. They can grant the request, deny it, or invoke a 30-day extension to respond. 

Keeping track of response time is essential, especially if an appeal becomes necessary. Spotlight PA’s Ed Mahon recently explained five key elements of the appeal process. 

Limitations of the law

Personal information such as Social Security numbers, privileged information such as that between an attorney and a client, and law enforcement information like ongoing criminal investigations are among the records shielded by the law.

Min XianLocal Accountability Reporter

“It was poorly run and it’s such a shame.”

—Ashley Rushing, of Luzerne County, said of Pennsylvania’s troubled mortgage relief program
Support Spotlight PA's investigative journalism for Pennsylvania and for a limited time, your gift will be DOUBLED.
Support Spotlight PA's vital journalism and for a limited time, all gifts will be DOUBLED!There are only 72 hours left for you to support Spotlight PA's vital work and get your gift DOUBLED by the Benter Foundation in Pittsburgh.

Our nonpartisan investigative journalism digs deep, uncovered stories you won't find anywhere else, and drives positive change in our communities. But we can only keep it up with your support.

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Thank you!

—Sarah, Spotlight PA State College Editor
» Women have more power than ever in Pennsylvania’s legislature, but lawmakers say big hurdles remain

» Thousands of homeowners still at risk as Pa. alleges improper denials, delays in mortgage relief

» Pa. primary election 2023: A complete guide to the candidates for state Supreme Court

» How some police, attorneys, and jails are trying to help Pa.’s ailing system for mentally ill people

» 5 tips to win a Pa. open records fight and overcome secrecy in government

» WATCH: A free panel on how to obtain public health information in Pa.

» UNEQUAL ELECTIONS: Join us and a panel of election experts on Thursday, March 30 from 6-7 p.m. EST on Zoom for a free discussion on unequal voting policies in the state, how they impact voters, and possible solutions. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org.
R Thomas Berner took this photo of crocuses in Benner Township on the first full day of spring.

Want to be featured here? Send your best local pics to talkofthetown@spotlightpa.org.
Want us to list your event? Send it to us.

» March 23: Global Connections hosts International Poetry Night at Webster’s Bookstore Café in downtown State College.

» March 23: The Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State presents Soul Science Lab’s Make a Joyful Noize, which “merges music, film, and movement to express the visceral and contagious energy of Black joy as a force for inspiration and healing.”

» March 24: Sock & Buskin hosts Slain at the Speakeasy, an interactive murder mystery party at the Gamble Mill in Bellefonte.

» March 24-25: Catch the Banff Centre Mountain Film Festival World Tour at The State Theatre in downtown State College.

» March 25: Minerals Junior Education Day in Pleasant Gap is an opportunity for elementary and middle school students to learn about earth science, minerals, crystals, gems, and fossils.

» March 25-26: The Central Pennsylvania Orchid Society hosts is 55th annual Orchid Show at Penn State.

» March 25-26: Visit Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center for its Maple Harvest Festival and Pancake Breakfast.
Support Spotlight PA's independent, nonpartisan journalism and for a limited time, your gift will be DOUBLED.
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An anagram is a word, phrase, or name formed by rearranging the letters of another. For example, “spotlight” also forms “stoplight.”

Decode the anagram and send your answer to talkofthetown@spotlightpa.org. We’ll shout out winners here, and one each week will get some Spotlight PA State College swag.

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Do you have events, community shoutouts, questions about our region, or tips on stories that we should pursue? Email our team.
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