Ken Boyle is precise, punctual, and, when he gets a hold of an idea, relentless.
The 61-year-old retired software engineer from Yardley has directed his single-mindedness and concern about good government toward the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, an organization that doesn't receive much attention but plays a big role in how money is spent on transportation in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Boyle's raison d'être has been to shine a light on how the DVRPC divvies out tens of millions in public money each year. Among other ideas, Boyle wants the public to have easy access to grant applications, preferably before the DVRPC makes decisions. The DVRPC has a vote scheduled for Thursday on an update to its public access policy.
"The issue is really about getting the facts around the allocation of taxpayer money through the grant process," Boyle said.
Boyle's complaints have gotten the DVRPC's attention. The proposed update originally stated the agency would not make public grant application materials. A language change made just two weeks ago softened that somewhat, but Boyle still sees the agency's stance as an obstacle to transparency.
Regional planning commissions act as coordinators, ensuring that a larger vision is served when public entities plan transportation projects. In one year, the DVRPC, which oversees state and federal money allocated to nine counties in South Jersey and Southeastern Pennsylvania, could review 100 grant applications and award $30 million to about half of those projects, the organization reported.
At the beginning of July, for example, the DVRPC announced $1.8 million in grants for 23 projects, including a study to look at car crashes that injured pedestrians in Center City and funds for improved bicycle and pedestrian connections in Camden.
Boyle wants access to the grant applications so he can better understand DVRPC decisions, he said. Now, the public cannot easily get copies of those applications to determine what projects are being proposed and why one project may be awarded a grant over others.
The DVRPC argued that privacy ensures decisions are made fairly, said Barry Seymour, DVRPC executive director.
"If we did those reviews fully in the open, then that winds up subjecting that review committee to untold pressure," he said. "Then it would either be consultants or other communities or political pressure coming in to push for one application over another. We want to shield that review committee to allow them to work objectively."
Applications aren't entirely inaccessible now, Seymour said. Anyone can request them directly from the government entity that submitted them. Since the DVRPC receives grant applications from two states, Seymour said, there are two sets of public access laws to consider. Grant applications include information that could be proprietary, such as references to specific software or equipment. Rather than maintain a staff to review which laws apply, he said, the DVRPC refers the public to the authors of the applications.
The update this month to the proposed rule states that if a person requests grant application materials, the DVRPC will hand that request along to the governments that wrote the grant bid, but, DVRPC staff explained, forwarding the request won't be considered a formal Right-to-Know request for public documents, and a government entity would have no obligation to respond. Even with the language change, a person interested in more information could still end up having to request information one municipality at a time.
Boyle has argued that when a grant is awarded, only the winner is named, with few details about why, but Seymour said the agency would provide a list of applicants after the review process ended.
The DVRPC's practice is in line with other government agencies, Seymour said, and Boyle, who is part of the organization's Public Participation Task Force, has been fighting for an unreasonable standard.
"Nothing has changed at DVRPC," Diane Ellis-Marseglia, a Bucks County commissioner and DVRPC board member, said by email. "Mr. Boyle has been complaining about this for years. I believe DVRPC is transparent."
Some public officials, however, think Boyle may have a point. Among them is U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R., Pa.), who wrote in a statement, "When it comes to spending taxpayer dollars, my constituents demand transparency and accountability — two essential characteristics of good governance. The people of Bucks and Montgomery Counties deserve to know how their money is being spent at Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission."
Montgomery County officials, too, question the DVRPC's approach.
Forcing the public to search for application information from individual governments, Valerie Arkoosh, chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners and a DVRPC board member, wrote in June, "would then threaten to endanger not only the trust of the public, but it would shift the burden of providing these records to participating members."
Boyle's demand for grant applications before a decision is made exceeds what's usually made public, said Melissa Melewsky, media law council with the Pennsylvania News Media Association. Typically, bids for public money are not made public until after a decision on a contract or project, she said, but once that happens, very little should be withheld.
"The general rule is, when you're applying for and or receiving public funds or doing public works, transparency must attach to it with some very limited conditions," she said.
A business applying for public money may withhold confidential proprietary information or trade secrets, such as details on its taxes or revenue, she said, but government usually has very little that's protected. There is a debate pending in Commonwealth Court, though, about how much information a government making a bid should provide and when, Melewsky said. The Pennsylvania Office of Open Records has said Philadelphia and Pittsburgh's bids to host Amazon's new headquarters should be made public. Amazon has not yet selected a city for its headquarters.
The two cities are challenging the record office decision, claiming the bids contain trade secrets, an exemption usually reserved for businesses.
The challenge Boyle faces isn't uncommon when dealing with regional or bistate agencies, Melewsky said, which use public money but aren't beholden to any state's public access requirements. She agreed that requesting applications from every government entity is an onerous standard, since DVRPC has all the documents in one place.
"From a transparency standpoint," Melewsky said, "if the commission realizes these applications are public anyway from the bidders, it seems like an unnecessary barrier to access to make people jump through hoops."
Boyle emphasized that he is not alleging malpractice on the part of the DVRPC, and accepts that deliberations about grant applications should be private. But he is concerned about a system in which the DVRPC board, which includes elected officials from member counties, allocates significant sums of money without public oversight.
He said he's seeking accountability, a way to ensure the best projects are being rewarded. Making information about grant applications available, he added, also would benefit communities that need the money, making it clearer what a successful grant application includes.