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RCFP: City of Philadelphia must reform public records practices

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  1. Freedom of Information

Update: On July 21, 2023, the Philadelphia Law Department responded to the Reporters Committee’s letter, writing that the city “shares some of the concerns expressed by RCFP and invites constructive conversation around how the law may be reformed to both provide relief to agencies that are fulfilling large quantities of requests and to reduce response time to requesters.” On Oct. 26, 2023, officials from the Philadelphia Law Department visited the newsroom of The Philadelphia Inquirer to conduct a training on requesting city records. As part of their presentation, city officials shared links to resources that can help journalists with their public records requests.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is urging the Philadelphia Law Department to reassess how the city handles records requests and make necessary changes to prevent burdensome delays in releasing information to the public.

In a letter submitted to the city’s chief legal officer on June 13, 2023, the Reporters Committee expressed concerns about the Law Department’s failure to respond to Pennsylvania Right-to-Know Law requests in a timely fashion. The letter notes that a Reporters Committee review of the city’s responses to public records requests over a nearly year-long period revealed several troubling trends. For instance, the records showed that the city invoked a 30-day extension for three out of every five records requests and exceeded that extension about a quarter of the time.

“Delays in fulfilling RTKL requests can impede the important purpose of allowing the public access to information so that they may hold their government accountable,” Paula Knudsen Burke, the Reporters Committee’s Local Legal Initiative attorney for Pennsylvania, states in the letter.

Philadelphia’s practice of routine RTKL response delays has been a problem for years, according to a 2019 study done by the Media, Inequality, and Change Center, and the Center for Media at Risk.

In the letter, Burke urges the city to reevaluate its RTKL practices and put an end to the persistent delays that prevent members of the press and public from promptly accessing public records.

“Whether more staffers are needed, more oversight, or more funding, members of the public should not be left in the dark, waiting for the City to respond to even the simplest of requests,” the letter concludes.

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