By Melissa Melewsky
Pennsylvania has two main public access laws: the Sunshine Act, which requires agencies to hold public meetings; and the Right to Know Law (RTKL), which guarantees public access to many government records.
Each law works well in some circumstances, but both need improvements for more government transparency. The Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association (PNA) has long advocated for amendments to these laws to make government more open and accountable.
With regard to public records, the 2008 Right to Know Law was a significant improvement over the old law, but more reform is necessary. Two of the most common issues arise as a result of the law's investigation exemptions.
The criminal investigation exemption is extremely broad and limits access to basic information about crime in our communities. In many communities, police "incident reports," or the basic facts about crimes, are not publicly available. They should be. Similarly, the noncriminal investigation exemption is overbroad and limits access to records that would inform the public about agency actions and decisions, such as bridge inspections, nursing home reports, and safety inspections. Neither of these exemptions has a time limit, and the law does not provide access even after the investigations are closed.
Many states do provide greater access in these areas, and both the criminal and noncriminal investigation exemptions must be narrowed to provide Pennsylvanians with important information about crimes and government activities. Sen. John Blake (D., Luzerne) has introduced two bills, SB 465 and SB 466, that would amend the RTKL, and we hope to work with him to amend these bills and address a number of the overbroad exemptions.
With regard to public meetings, Pennsylvania's Sunshine Act is too easy for some public officials to ignore and far too difficult for citizens to challenge. Each year, the PNA Legal Hotline receives hundreds of calls about Sunshine Act issues, but there have been only a handful of Sunshine Act legal actions in the past decade. The law is extremely difficult to enforce, because when agency members go behind closed doors to discuss agency business, there is no way to know what they discussed.
PNA supports HB 37, introduced by Rep. Rick Saccone (R., Allegheny), which would require public agencies to record executive sessions so that a court could review it, in private, in the event of a legal challenge.
Another easy improvement to the Sunshine Act would be to require agencies to provide agendas in advance of meetings. When the public doesn't know what is on the agenda for a meeting, they are much less likely to attend and participate. Agendas are an easy way for agencies to inform and engage community members. Last session, PNA supported HB 1155, introduced by Rep. Jim Christiana (R., Beaver), which would require agendas to be posted in advance of meetings. Local governments objected to the bill.
Pennsylvania's public access laws are intended to create an informed and active citizenry, and PNA is working to support changes that serve the public interest and improve transparency.