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Senate of Pennsylvania
Session of 2017 - 2018 Regular Session


Posted: December 22, 2016 12:09 PM
From: Senator John P. Blake
To: All Senate members
Subject: Strengthening the Open Records Law
I will soon be reintroducing legislation that will provide much-needed updates and revisions to Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law (Act 3 of 2008). These proposed changes have passed the Senate unanimously over the past two legislative sessions. As you know, prior to the 2008 Right-to-Know Law the burden of determining that which is a public record rested with the general public. With Senator Dominic Pileggi’s authorship and Governor Rendell’s signature of this law, the burden was successfully shifted to government offices/agencies and to other publicly funded institutions to determine or to explain why a certain record is not public information. This was a very positive legislative achievement in Pennsylvania and I commend caucus leaders and members of the General Assembly who supported this necessary change. It evidences a commitment to improved transparency and accountability at all levels of government. However, areas for improvement have been revealed during our eight-year experience with the law. Therefore, I would appreciate your co-sponsorship and support for these updates.

Document #1

Introduced as SB466

Description: The first bill will bring greater transparency to the records of our State-Related Universities (Penn State, Pittsburgh, Temple and Lincoln).  Specifically, my legislation will significantly increase the amount of university personnel salary information that must be disclosed.  The bill will also provide access to budgetary and contract information in user-friendly, searchable online databases.  My legislation will not affect existing, statutory exclusions related to privacy or similar legal protections required under law.  It is important to note that Pennsylvania is one of only three states in the nation that explicitly exempts such universities from open records provisions – Alaska and Delaware the other two. For most of the nation, state-funded universities’ records are presumed open or have been judicially confirmed as open.
Our institutions of higher learning are powerful engines for the state’s economy. They are world class institutions and we need to ensure they remain so.  My measure to expand the extent to which the state-related institutions are subject to the Right-to-Know Law will not undermine key and important elements of their operations or mission and they are not intended to undermine their competitive position or economic impact.  There is, however, plenty of room for improvement in the level of transparency and accountability we can expect from these institutions.

Document #2

Introduced as SB465

Description: The second bill will make improvements in other sections of the law.  Specifically, this bill would:
  • Ensure that prison inmates have access to records related to themselves and their incarceration, but otherwise limit their right to file requests. Appeals by inmates account for approximately 40 percent of all appeals to the Office of Open Records (OOR);
  • Add “campus police” to the definition of “location agency” so that they are covered by in the same manner as municipal police departments;
  • Allow agencies to charge reasonable fees for processing commercial requests;
  • Require agencies to maintain all records involved in a Right-to-Know request until the request has been responded to and any related appeals have been exhausted;
  • Clarify that the non-criminal investigative exception does not apply to final safety inspection reports made pursuant to law or regulation or final agency decisions;
  • Allow a court to impose a civil penalty of up to $500 per day if an agency or public official fails to comply with an order under the Right-to-Know Law, including a final determination issued by the OOR;
  • Clarify that if a public record exists in a specific computer file format, the agency must provide the record in that format upon request;
  • Clarify that certain tax forms (e.g., federal Form W-2) are “personal financial information” and not public;
  • Expand the definition of “local agency” to clarify that entities such as economic development authorities and industrial development authorities are covered;
  • Allow requests to be made to the head of an agency (e.g., a department secretary) in addition to an agency’s open-records officer;
  • Change the time frame for responses depending on how the original request was submitted. In most cases, the existing five-day response time remains in effect. For requests submitted by postal mail, agencies will have 10 days from the postmark date to provide a response;
  • Clarify that an agency’s bank account numbers, bank routing numbers, credit card numbers or passwords are not public;
  • Clarify that volunteer emergency response organizations are not “agencies” under the Right-to-Know Law;
  • Conform the definitions of “state-affiliated entity” and “independent agency” to other statutes;
  • Make changes to the time frame for the appeal process, reflecting the real-world experience of the OOR and ensuring that the OOR has the ability to conduct hearings when appropriate;
  • Clarify that the OOR may conduct in camera record reviews;
  • Clarify that the OOR has standing and may participate in appeals of OOR decisions; and,
  • Require the OOR to abstain from public comment on pending proceedings.