Friday, November 02, 2007

Pennsylvania Legislature screws it up again

The Pennsylvania Newspaper Association is leading the fight against a new bill designed to improve Pennsylvania's open records law.

The reason for the opposition? The Pennsylvania Legislature, aka The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight, has managed to make a bad open records law even worse.

House Bill 443, as amended, is contrary to open government and would restrict access even more than our current open records law, according to PNA counsel Terri Henning.

"The amended bill is a significant step in the wrong direction and would result in less access than the public has today," Henning said.

The bill contains a number of overbroad, overly subjective provisions that would allow agencies to deny access to records that are open today, Henning said.

"It would create blanket exemptions for much agency correspondence and all e-mail," she added.

Here are some other reasons why House Bill 443 is bad for Pennsylvania from a memo Henning release Friday:

o The bill would create a blanket exemption for "e-mail." This obviously invites abuse and would prevent public access to any e-mail message, regardless of the content of that message. Pennsylvania would be the only state in the country that has such a broad e-mail exemption (49 state laws either expressly provide for access to e-mail or do not differentiate between e-mail and paper records, including Pennsylvania’s current law; only Rhode Island protects certain constituent e-mail). Whether a record is a "public record" must be based upon the substance, not the form. This exemption would make us the worst in the country on this issue.

o Rep. Josephs (D-Philadelphia) introduced an amendment to remove the e-mail exemptions, but only 69 representatives voted in favor of it. Find out how your representative voted here.

o The bill would create a blanket exemption (defined as a privilege) for "all communications between a legislator and constituent and all documents related to that communication." While certain constituent communication could be protected, this exemption is overbroad and would have the effect of preventing access to even financial records or agency decisions affecting the public (if they related in any way to constituent correspondence).

o The bill would create a blanket exemption for "correspondence and related records by and among a public official, a public official's staff and an agency." Again, this is overbroad and could prevent access to financial records and records reflecting agency decisions.

o The bill would exempt internal performance audits. These audits are paid for with public money and disclose inefficiencies or problems within public offices. The public is entitled to know how its money is being spent or misspent.

You can find the full text of the bill, as amended, here.

The House is scheduled to consider the bill for final consideration and passage on or about Nov. 13. Contact your legislator and tell them to vote against the amended bill.

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