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Home » DR News » DR on the Record » DR News archives » February 2, 2008

February 2, 2008 - Down to the Wire for Open Records

In this Edition:

  • Reality Check
  • Down to the Wire with Open Records

Reality Check
941 - Days since the Pay Raise of 2005. See the ticker.
1 - Law enacted to improve government integrity. See the cartoon.
0 - "Best-in-America" laws enacted. See the campaign.
See the full February edition of "Reality Check" on the web.

Down to the Wire for Open Records
There are two ways of looking at the Senate's 50-0 vote in favor of Senate Bill 1. It could mean that we are on the verge of having the best open records law in America with Gov. Ed Rendell's signature only days away. Or that the backroom deal was cut for a mediocre law, and not one Senator had the gumption to stand up for something better. Want to guess?

Time's up.

If all had gone according to plan this week, SB 1 already would be law. The plan, worked out in secret among legislative leaders, was to have the new version of SB 1 discussed in secret caucus meetings and enacted into law in one day. As Andrea Mulrine, president of the League of Women Voters of PA, observed, "It is the same process that resulted in a disastrous pay raise bill and flawed gambling legislation."

It's the usual Capitol fuzzy math: 2 secret meetings = 1 open records law. Once again, citizens would not be allowed to know what was happening until it was too late to say anything about it. Yet the campaign brochures would call it a victory.

Fight Another Day Next Wednesday. Fortunately, Common Cause PA and the League took the lead in arguing for a better SB 1 and bought more time. Both organizations sent letters to legislators throwing penalty flags on holes in the bill that Rendell's secretary of legislative affairs, Steve Crawford, called "big enough to drive a truck through." While the letters didn't stop Senators, they stopped the House. Its members, and we citizens, have until Wednesday to weigh in.

Common Cause issued a critique citing 18 flaws in SB 1. All are easily corrected and, if done, would give PA the best open records law in America. The top 3 are:

  • SB 1 puts the General Assembly beyond the reach of the Office of Open Records, which SB 1 creates to enforce the law. In essence, the legislature would make its own rules and enforce them against itself, as it does now. "A citizen's only recourse to challenge a legislative records denial would be to file suit in the Commonwealth Court, an expensive and time-consuming process," said Executive Director Barry Kauffman. Common Cause argues that the legislature should be covered by the same independent Office of Open Records that enforces the law for the rest of state and local government.
  • SB 1 puts the Office of Open Records in the Department of Community and Economic Development with its director appointed by the governor. This means the office would enforce rules against the same local governments to whom the agency gives hundreds of millions of dollars a year. To avoid this conflict of interest, Common Cause argues that the Office of Open Records should be part of "a truly independent agency like the Ethics Commission," Kauffman said.
  • SB 1's language about fees for copies of public records makes it possible for agencies to use fees as a weapon against citizen access. "Citizens already own these records and already pay for the staff who manage and protect them," Kauffman said.

Not Only That... Punishments are puny for those who break the law under SB 1. The maximum fine is $1,500, which is budget dust for state agencies, the legislature, most cities and municipalities and most school districts. The purpose of fines and punishments is to ensure compliance with the law. The purpose of inconsequential fines is to ensure that the law will not be taken seriously when it matters most.

SB 1 should be easy for citizens to enforce without having to endure the cost and delay of court proceedings. It should provide harsher penalties for public officials who repeatedly violate the law, including dismissal from office and criminal penalties.

Piling Irony Upon Irony. If anything is more ironic than an open records law being worked out in secret, it's the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association endorsing SB 1 and disregarding the problems that Common Cause and the League have exposed.

Last Wednesday, PNA urged both the Senate and House to accept the secretive fast-track plan and pass SB 1 that very day with no chance for their newspapers to report, or their readers to understand, the final proposal.

Citizens protect newspapers with the Constitution. In return, PNA should protect citizens by demanding the highest standards of public integrity in America. Instead, PNA embraced mediocrity despite overwhelming evidence that mediocrity does not serve us well.

If we miss this historic opportunity to go from worst to first in the openness of our government, PNA will be largely to blame because it gave lawmakers a fig leaf of secrecy to hide behind.

And they wonder why so many people are looking to alternative media for their news.


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