Feb. 15, 2008 · Calling it a ” pretty good Valentine’s Day present for the people of Pennsylvania,” Gov. Ed Rendell yesterday signed into law a bill to overhaul the state’s open records law, previously regarded as one of the worst in the country.
The bill, which seeks to provide more public information about government activity on both a local and state level, passed the state House unanimously on Feb. 11 and the state Senate the following day.
“This is a tremendous step forward for government transparency in Pennsylvania, and I am pleased to advance this bill to the governor’s desk,” said the bill’s sponsor, state Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R). “Residents of our state will benefit for decades to come from this rewriting of Pennsylvania’s 50-year-old Open Records Law.”
Under the bill, all records are presumed open, unless explicitly included on a list of exceptions. The bill also redirects the burden onto the government to prove why a record should remain private. Under the 1957 version of the law, the responsibility fell to public citizens to show why they should be given the information.
In addition, the new legislation establishes an Office of Open Records to more effectively resolve disputes surrounding open access issues.
“We’re very pleased,” said Deborah Musselman, who acted as an in-house lobbyist and point person on reform for the Pennsylvania Newspapers Association. “It’s not perfect, but when a bill is this complex, you’re never going to have a situation where everyone is 100 percent satisfied.”
More than two dozen categories of information remain restricted for privacy or safety purposes, such as information that “would likely result in physical harm or risk the personal security of an individual.”
But open government advocates contend the many of the restrictions are discretionary.
“The distinction that needs to be made with the new law is that the exemptions only outline what agencies may legally withhold,” explains Kim de Bournon, executive director of the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition. “Agencies may use the ‘discretion’ provision if the public right to know outweighs other concerns and release of the information doesn’t violate any other laws or statutes.”
The law does not take effect until Jan. 1, 2009, to allow time to implement the new regulations and hire staff for the Office of Open Records.