Right to Know requests overwhelm Cumberland County

2013-04-16T22:19:00Z Right to Know requests overwhelm Cumberland CountyChristen Croley, The Sentinel The Sentinel
April 16, 2013 10:19 pm  • 

Cumberland County's Officer of Open Records, Joanne Burkhart, says Right to Know requests have "grown exponentially" in the last two years since businesses began using the process as a research tool.

"It's overwhelming in the county's instance — it's businesses," Burkhart said. "It's businesses that have learned they can get information, especially uncollected funds like tax claims, checks that have been sent out that haven’t been cashed — we get those on a regular basis."

Burkhart estimated that company inquiries account for 90 percent of the county’s Right to Know requests since 2011. So far this year, the county has received 31 requests, but Burkhart says the number doesn’t quantify the number of hours spent fulfilling records requests.

“Sometimes it takes a few hours to put the information together,” she said. “Other times it can take days, especially if we have to search through our archives.”

The time spent often goes unpaid to the county, which doesn’t charge for any electronic documents — making the OOR of particular interest to businesses.

“They’ve learned they can get, if possible, they can get it electronically,” Burkhart said. “So we can’t charge anything for it. So for all of our time, we can’t even get a quarter a page like we would for a hard copy.”

But Cumberland County is just one of 67 counties feeling the squeeze of Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know law revamp.

The updated law — completely overhauled in 2008 to address the Commonwealth’s antiquated right-to-know procedures — created the Office of Open Records and states that records are “presumed open” and accessible to the public unless the agency in question can prove otherwise. The update provides citizens with the ability to request any document pertaining to the operations and management of any public agency.

“The OOR is an independent quasi-judicial office that currently has 11 staff,” said Terry Mutchler, OOR executive director. “Of those, six attorneys resolved all 2,188 appeals in 2012. The mission of the OOR is to implement the Right-to-Know Law.”

The OORs’ 2012 annual report says their workload has jumped 89 percent since 2009 — creating an increasing gap between available OOR staff and the influx of right-to-know appeals.

“If we don’t have the money or staff to do the job, citizens will be forced to reach into their own pockets and go to court when an agency denies a public record,” Mutchler said in the report. “Instead of having an initial review from the independent OOR.”

The OOR litigates appeals between the right-to-know requester and the agency denying their request. The report said the OOR dismissed or denied 63 percent of 2,188 appeals filed in 2012. Only 11 percent of appeals were granted. The report says 56 percent of the appeal requests came from private citizens, while another 31 percent came from inmates. Companies, the media and government officials rounded out the requests at 8 percent, 4 percent and 1 percent, respectively.

One quarter of the appeals involving a local agency specifically requested access to county records.

“On average, each attorney appeals officer handles 393 appeals/cases a year — a heavier caseload than many assistant district attorneys,” Mutchler said in the report. “Many of these cases require extensive legal briefing and oral argument.”

The report didn’t say why the OOR denied or dismissed so many requests, but Mutchler did detail some of the most sought-after records.

“Requestors sought, among other records, inspection reports of school cafeterias, cost information of agency investigations, information concerning how property tax assessments are determined, amounts spent on litigation and emails of government officials,” she said. “The Right-to-Know Law and OOR remain strong and effective tools enabling citizens to maintain a transparent and accountable government. Pennsylvania continues to emerge as a national leader in open government as it now ranks as high as fifth in national transparency rankings.”

Copyright 2015 The Sentinel. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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