In response to criticism, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission on Thursday approved rules that clarify what information is public and what is not.
The bistate agency's policy for public records access had drawn criticism from a Bucks County activist.
The rule passed unanimously at the organization's monthly board meeting.
"It's language is a lot more clear," said Alison Hastings, head of communications for the DVRPC. "It's more step-by-step how to make a request, step-by-step what the review process is."
That clarification included changing the number of public records access exemptions from seven to 13, but Hastings said that doesn't necessarily mean it will be harder to get information. It simply makes clearer what is and isn't public, she said.
The rule includes, though, a clause that one DVRPC watchdog says keeps a grant-funding process that handles tens of millions of dollars shrouded from public oversight. The DVRPC won't directly provide information related to tens of millions in transportation grants issued each year.
The DVRPC coordinates state and federal transportation money in nine counties in South Jersey and Southeastern Pennsylvania to ensure transportation projects serve a larger mission. In one year, the DVRPC typically reviews about 100 grant applications, often from municipalities, and awards $30 million to about half of those projects.
Ken Boyle, a retired software engineer from Yardley, has pushed the DVRPC to provide the grant applications before an award decision is made in order to provide a better window into what projects are being proposed, and why one might be selected over others.
"One of the norms used to be the government was a good source of facts," Boyle said at the DVRPC meeting Thursday.
The DVRPC's new policy states if someone asks for grant-application material, it will hand along the request to the author of the application, but it will be up to that government entity to provide it, and there will be no legally binding obligation to respond to the request. Potentially, a municipality could decline to respond to the DVRPC, and a person seeking grant applications would have to submit a formal Right to Know public records request to an application's author to obtain the documents.
The agency doesn't want to be in the position of responding to requests for grant applications because there are differences in the public access laws in the two states it oversees. It also resisted the idea of providing grant application information before a decision is made, since that could lead to an attempt to influence deliberations, DVRPC officials have said.
A previous version of the proposed public access rule flatly stated the DVRPC would not provide grant application information. Concerns over transparency from, among others, Valerie Arkoosh, a Montgomery County Commissioner and DVRPC board member, led to the DVRPC agreeing to hand along requests for information to the municipalities.