Journalist, citizens press Pennsylvania lawmakers for stronger sunshine law
When word leaked that the newest board of supervisors for Hemlock
Township, Pa., had wiped away a huge surplus by awarding themselves fat
construction contracts, Judy Snyder and a dozen other citizens took action.
But Snyder said their efforts to get township documents were blocked
at every step. Even after her election last year as county auditor, Snyder
found that she couldn’t get access to records.
Threats of court action enabled the citizens group to secure enough
records to discover that the township’s $373,000 surplus had become a $117,000
debt in only three years.
But the search for records in Hemlock has proven to be costly. Snyder
says the group has resorted to selling soup and chicken dinners to raise more
than $24,000 in attorney’s fees and copying costs.
“I have been refused access as a resident, a member of a citizens
group and now as an elected auditor,” Snyder said. “If this law does not apply
to any of these categories, who does it protect?”
Snyder wants Pennsylvania lawmakers to revamp the state’s 43-year-old
Right to Know Act — one she refers to as the government’s “right to N-O.”
And it appears that could happen.
The state Senate held hearings Oct. 4 on Senate Bill 1333, sponsored
by Stewart Greenleaf, R-Willow Grove. Greenleaf says he hopes his bill will
create a feeling of openness in Pennsylvania government.
The bill came in response to last year’s Keystone State Secrets report
that found that nearly one of every three public-records requests was denied.
In this first survey of the law, reporters from 14 newspapers filed 410
requests and were refused 122 times.
Researchers found that police officials denied records requests 77% of
the time. State police officials refused all such requests. School principal
salary records were denied by 32 of the 118 districts in the state.
Kara Dolphin, government affairs director for the Pennsylvania
Newspaper Association, blames the government’s inaccessibility on an ancient
law. Enacted in 1957, the Right to Know Act only promises access to “accounts,
vouchers or contracts” and “minutes, orders or decisions.”
And because the law is 43 years old, it makes no reference to new
technology and electronic records. An absence of such language, Dolphin said,
has enabled many agencies to refuse access to any records.
“It’s pre-Watergate, so you can imagine how it’s an antiquated law
that needs a complete overhaul,” Dolphin said in a telephone interview. “And it
still says that citizens have the burden of proving that the records should be
Rebecca Daugherty of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
said the Pennsylvania law stands with a similar one in New Jersey as the
weakest in the nation.
“It’s an ugly, ugly law,” said Daugherty, who directs the committee’s
Freedom of Information Service Center. “But I think they are really serious
about this bill. I think they are going to change it.”
In hearing testimony, Susan Schwartz, Pennsylvania sunshine chair for
the Society of Professional Journalists, said she became involved in access
issues because of difficulties in getting records for even the most routine
Schwartz noted that in 1997, police in Columbia County delayed issuing
press releases about the rape of a 14-year-old girl. When police finally
released a report four days later, it included a description of an unusual
tattoo. The suspected rapist was arrested the next day.
John Bull, president of a journalists group called the First Amendment
Coalition, said news organizations understand that a balance must be struck
between openness and privacy. But, Bull said, the law leans too much toward
“Too often, government has acted as though it is the master rather
than the servant of the public,” said Bull, an editor at
The Philadelphia Inquirer. “We have a long history of
government begrudgingly giving even partial access to public documents.”
Snyder said her effort to secure records has helped her learn that her
hometown of Hemlock isn’t the only government body that “doesn’t want the
people to know what it is doing, or believes … the taxpayers won’t
“If there is nothing to hide, why should we not be able to know what
our government is doing?” she asked.