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State Open Records Chief Says E-mail a Blind Spot in PA Transparency Laws

The head of Pennsylvania's Office of Open Records says state transparency laws are out of step with modern communication technology and are long overdue for an update.

The call to action comes after Gov. Tom Corbett shared his own technique for evading certain record requests from the public.

Corbett recently told reporters that he tries to avoid using e-mail, and deletes his e-mails about once a week. Otherwise, he said, reporters would be able to see e-mails requested under the state's Right-to-Know law.

The law is enforced by the state's Office of Open Records. Executive Director Terry Mutchler said retention policies probably require such messages to be kept for more than a week. On average, she said, public records must be kept for one to three years.

But Mutchler said Corbett's comments point to a larger problem: state transparency laws haven't kept up with new technologies, like e-mails and instant messaging.

"This issue is not per se about the governor, it's about government," Mutchler said. "We have clear evidence that not everybody is doing everything in a unified way, and certainly not in the right way in accordance with what the legislature established."

In 2008, Pennsylvania lawmakers grappled with how to define a public record with the overhaul of the state's open records law, referred to as the Right-to-Know law. It allows people to request public documents from state and local governments.

An overlapping law dictating how long those records should be kept hasn't been touched since the late 1920s. Another law governing public meetings dates back to 1998.

"If you have a very strong, as we do, Right-to-Know law, and you don't have a strong open meetings law and a strong retention law, you know, it's kind of like, it's kind of like driving on three wheels. It doesn't work," said Mutchler. "Or, it doesn't work well."