By Editorial Board
A spell of pleasant weather that set in March 13 has so far held steady, in fitting tribute to National Sunshine Week.
Unfortunately, though, this annual initiative to highlight transparency laws seeks to advance cooperation from the government, not the elements. To many journalists and civically minded citizens this feels equally futile.
A recent run-in between our newsroom and the City of Pittsburgh over a request for public records ended in a not-so-sunny conclusion that nevertheless illuminates the murky slop standing in for transparency in many government systems. We invite you to wade through this one with us.
In the wake of the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse, we sought additional information from the city about the condition of two bridges abutting our coverage area that PennDOT deems “poor.” Hearing nothing a week later, we sent a follow-up email to ensure the request hadn’t been mislaid before filing an appeal.
When this courtesy reminder was also ignored, we appealed to Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records. That day, a Pittsburgh official broke weeks of silence by dispatching an earful of hostility down the phone line. The fault was ours, somehow, that the official had missed our first email and been out sick while the second came through.
But what’s more disappointing than the predictable obstructionism of city bureaucrats, is the response from the open records officer overseeing our appeal. Case law, he said, dictates the city “met its burden of proof” by having the chief records officer sign an affidavit declaring they could not locate the original email. Our screenshots showing the sent email with attached forms were somehow less convincing.
Pennsylvania’s Right To Know law is supposed to work on the presumption of openness to those filing. In this situation, the city’s word was good enough to deny the public vital knowledge of the state of their roadways while we reset the process and await another verdict. In this rendering of the world, reporters across the country may as well throw away their pens, confident government officials will no longer lie to the public.
America’s tradition of a strong free press developed instead within the real world of checks and balances, where public scrutiny is the only defense against tyranny.
Which brings us back to the spirit of Sunshine Week.
When state agents side with government officials against the spirit of the law, it suggests a broader landscape where bureaucrats put up more of a fight than the public and their representatives in the media.
We need to change this. Here’s a crash course of your rights for access and information.
Pennsylvania has two broad laws outlining public rights of access: the Sunshine Act (public meetings) and the Right to Know Act (public records).
Sunshine law requires any governing body, from a planning commission to the general assembly, to conduct business in full public view. They can break for executive session to discuss a short list of exempted topics - most commonly litigation and personnel - but they can’t simply discuss whatever they want behind doors. Any business discussed in executive session must ultimately be approved in public.
Right to Know law requires governing agencies to disclose any form of record or document when requested by the public. Exemptions exist here as well for sensitive items like police reports compiled during an ongoing investigation, but the burden of proof falls on the agency to show why any record – an email thread between two commissioners or receipts from a costly lawsuit – should not be made public.
These apply to all members of the public, and the media has no special permissions spelled out in either laws that the public cannot also call on.
We could tell you other horror stories of government obstructionism in the face of credible questions, but we’d rather end on a call to arms. Learn your rights and exercise them, and we’ll see whether the murk distills to something more like spring water.