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 firstname.lastname@example.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 Xian, Local Accountability Reporter