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Governor approves new open-records law

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    NMU         PENNSYLVANIA         Freedom of Information         Jul 3, 2002    

Governor approves new open-records law

  • Gov. Mark Schweiker signed H.B. 2100 into law, changing a notoriously ineffective open records law into one that now requires the government to provide reasons for denying requests for public records with specificity.

Pennsylvania on June 29 made the first changes in 45 years to its Right to Know Act when Gov. Mark Schweiker approved legislation making the state’s open-records laws more friendly to the public.

House Bill 2100 improves and clarifies access to public records. Pennsylvania has long had a reputation of possessing one of the more archaic, weak and restrictive open-records laws in the country by narrowly defining which documents are available for public inspection.

“Government must allow itself to be scrutinized, but, for far too long, Pennsylvania’s antiquated Right to Know law hurt more than it helped,” Schweiker said in a statement. The bill, which makes accessible public records stored on computer, gives Pennsylvanians the ability to use modern technology to investigate their government, he added.

Open records advocates lauded the passage of the bill, which was sponsored by John Maher (R-Upper St. Clair) and Charles McIlhinney, Jr. (R-Bucks County), as an important first step in improving the original Right to Know Act enacted in 1957. The state Senate unanimously approved the bill, and the state House registered its agreement with a lopsided 190-1 vote before sending it to the governor’s desk for approval.

The bill imposes 10-day deadlines on the government for responding to requests; assesses penalties for lateness; limits copying fees; and requires written explanations when requests are denied. Under the original Right to Know Law enacted in 1957, the government could refuse or ignore records requests without the risk of any penalties.

However, Barry Kauffman, executive director of the public interest group Common Cause in Pennsylvania, told The Philadelphia Inquirer that the bill was “pretend reform” since it does not expand or improve the essential question of how public records are defined. Gregory S. Vitali (D-Delaware), the lone dissenter in the House, also said the bill was well-intentioned but fell short.

However, advocates claim the bill will not be the final step.

“At some point in the future, we must look at Pennsylvania’s definition of open records, which remains probably the narrowest and weakest in America,” said Dennis Hetzel, chairman of the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association’s government affairs committee. “But that’s a discussion for another day.”

The law goes into effect on Dec. 26.

(H.B. 2100) MFS

© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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