Monday, June 04, 2007

A new ally in the fight for open government

News Flash: "Darth Vader turns from the Dark Side."

OK, you won't see that headline in today's newspapers, but a key political figure in Pennsylvania has joined the battle to reform one of the worst open-records law in the country.

Pennsylvania politicians like to operate in the shadows, away from public scutiny. That's one of the reasons our state government is so screwed up.

Following hearings in Harrisburg Monday, state Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi finally saw the light.

The Delaware County Republican publicly announced his support for a major overhaul of Pennsylvania's Right-to-Know Law. Gov. Ed Rendell made a similar pledge earlier this year.

Reform activists and proponents of open government have been working hard to get the state's political elite to back the presumption that government records are open unless there is an overiding need for privacy.

The way the state's laws are written now, most government records are presumed secret and it's up to residents to force government to make them public.

The "flip of presumption" has long been sought by open-records advocates who say the current law, which defines just two categories of records as necessarily open, allows governmental entities to bar access to information the public should know, according to the Associated Press coverage of the Senate hearings.

Sen. Pileggi said he plans to amend his bill (Senate Bill 1) in the State Government Committee to reflect his new-found position.

"Reversing the presumption is a major change, and we need to carefully balance the right of citizens to review records with the need for appropriate exceptions to protect legitimate interests," Pileggi said. "Developing the list of exceptions should involve input from a wide spectrum of interested parties."

The Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, which has been leading the fight for more open government in Pennsylvania for years, welcomed Pileggi's conversion.

"We are optimistic that we can work together to achieve the necessary reforms to give Pennsylvanians greater access to their government," association lawyer Teri Henning said.

The Pennsylvania Newspaper Association has created a Web site to help keep residents informed about open records in Pennsylvania.

The site,, is coordinated by Jamie Blaine, a former newspaper publisher, teacher and consultant, and is updated regularly.

PNA believes Pennsylvania's open records law must be amended to include:

1. Acknowledgment that records belong to the public

The public is entitled to know and be informed fully about the conduct and activities of government.

2. Improved definition of "public record" and a presumption of access

Records in the possession or control of a public agency must be presumed to be accessible to the public. The law should include specific exemptions for records that are not public.

3. Burden of proof on agency

In Pennsylvania, the person seeking access must prove a right to that access. In most states, however, the burden is on the agency to show that specific information is not public under the law.

4. Broader definition of "agency"

The definition of "agency" must include the General Assembly, state-related universities and any organization or entity that relies substantially on taxpayers' money.

5. Administrative appeal/Office of Access

Pennsylvania must create an Office of Access to hear appeals and furnish advisory guidelines, opinions and other appropriate information about the laws to both agencies and citizens.

6. Meaningful penalties

Penalties for open records law violations need to be enforced and the fines increased to make them meaningful.

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