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Politics & Government

In Open Records Debate, a Case for Being Less Business-Friendly

The same senator who sponsored legislation creating the 5-year-old Office of Open Records has drafted revisions to the state's Right-to-Know law - the "most critical" proposed change being one that would keep commercial users from exploiting the law on the cheap.

Local government officials have said for years the passage of the Right-to-Know law has resulted in a tidal wave of records requests.

Some are legitimate. Some are nuisances: people who file request after request, earning them the ire of state and local officials who call them everything from "crazy" to "ridiculously crazy."

But many, many record requests are coming from people out to make a buck, and the burden is falling especially hard on local governments.

"Township officials are currently serving as quasi workforce for some of the businesses by tracking their competitors' activity and also providing information... concerning our residents that currently comes at no additional benefit to the townships," said Robin Getz, the North Cornwall Township manager in Lebanon County. She testified before a Senate committee Monday about proposed changes to the state's Right-to-Know law.

One of the suggested tweaks would require businesses to pay fees for record requests. Such a change has the full favor of Office of Open Records Executive Director Terry Mutchler, who said government agencies should be able to distinguish private citizens, researchers and the press from commercial entities.

"We see it with folks that come in and get tax records and sell them," Mutchler said. "We see it with folks that come in who have businesses and the want to know everybody that's asked for building permits to build pools because they happen to sell pool liners."

Mutchler added some people request information about dog licenses.

"It goes on and on," she said.

Mutchler said requesters may be able to duck the fees by filing as private citizens, but added that there's "no perfect fix." The proposal would leave setting the fees up to agencies receiving the record requests.

Mutchler said her praise for the proposed changes to the Right-to-Know law far outweighed her concerns. But a big one, she said, is the plan to allow agencies to ask for court protection when they deem record requests to be "unduly burdensome."

"I can tell you in the strongest possible terms, you're going to have every level of government saying that every request that comes to them is unduly burdensome under this language," Mutchler said. "You're going to bypass what I believe is a very effective office in terms of making these determinations."

She said she's also skeptical of language that would keep her office from making public comments on pending record requests and related proceedings.

Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, who drafted the revision to the Open Records law, defended the proposed muzzle.

"The agency is in many ways judicial in nature, and it is by our analysis a fairly common type of restriction that judges abide by," he said.