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Open Records Office: McKeesport showed 'direct disregard' for Pa.’s Right to Know Law

A sign for a municipal building.
Kate Giammarise
90.5 WESA
McKeesport City Hall is shown in this file photo. In a recent determination, Pennsylvania's Office of Open Records said the city did not follow the state's open records law.

The City of McKeesport repeatedly failed to respond to Right to Know requests and showed “direct disregard” for the state’s Right to Know law, according to a recent determination from Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records, which called for the Allegheny County municipality to be penalized by the courts for its repeated non-compliance.

McKeesport officials said the city’s limited staff has been swamped with an increasing number of commercial requests from real estate-related companies, and the city has addressed the issues raised by the Office of Open Records.

The Office of Open Records is an independent, quasi-judicial state agency that decides appeals between records requesters and government bodies involving the state’s Right to Know law.

The office said it received ten separate appeals involving McKeesport since January of last year; the city did not respond to any of the requests and was only involved in two appeals before the Office of Open Records, the agency wrote in its June 26 determination.

According to the Office, in April of last year, the agency contacted the city and “notified them of its failure to participate in appeals and that information required under the [Right to Know Law] was missing from the city’s webpage. The city cited delivery to a spam box as the cause for the failed participation and also said the required information would be added to the City’s webpage.”

However, the city continued to fail to respond to requests or participate in appeals, according to the Office of Open Records. In October of last year, the agency sent a letter to the city saying it had not been complying with the Right to Know Law by not responding to requests, not being involved in appeals and by not putting information on its webpage letting the public know how to make a Right to Know request to the city.

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In an interview with WESA this week, the city’s part-time solicitor said in all ten cases, the requests initially went to a spam email folder prior to the appeal, but that the individuals ultimately received the information after their appeal. Among the information requested was city salary information, credit card records, and police policy information.

“It's unfortunate that they feel there was bad faith involved on behalf of the city,” said McKeesport solicitor J. Jason Elash. “We have communicated to them that we've received a huge uptick in Right to Know requests over the last two years.” Roughly nine of every ten requests are from commercial — rather than average citizen — requesters, Elash said, typically from real estate-related companies seeking information about code violations and liens.

Additionally, information about how citizens can file records requests with the city has since been added to its website.

“It's a small town and I'm a part time solicitor. I'm not a full time employee here, so I'm only here a few days a week,” Elash said.

He said he believed the city has “solved all those issues as of now. I don't foresee any more going to appeal without us at least having responded to the request,” Elash said.

Still, the Office of Open Records had harsh words for the city.

“The City’s repeated failure to respond to [Right to Know Law] requests and consistently be involved in appeals combined with its apparent refusal to post information on its webpage can only be interpreted as direct disregard for the [Right to Know Law],” the Office wrote in its recent determination.

“An agency cannot ignore a clear statutory mandate that directly impacts public interest as a whole. For these reasons, the OOR believes that the City has acted in bad faith and that a judicial finding of bad faith by a reviewing court would be appropriate here. Additionally, an award of sanctions and civil penalties by a court could be appropriate following judicial review,” the Office wrote.

The Office of Open Records cannot impose fines on municipalities for not complying with the law; only a court can do so.

The Office has previously reprimanded other cities for such behavior, though it is unusual, according to experts.

“When the Office of Open Records recognizes a course of conduct like they did in this case, where an agency is regularly not complying with the law, they can and should come down hard on them,” said Melissa Bevan Melewsky, attorney for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.

According to the Office of Open Records, since 2018, it has issued over 15,000 final determinations and only issued bad faith findings in a small handful of appeals. These include Mount Pocono Borough, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, Chester, Reading, Dauphin County, and the Centre County Coroner.

Kate Giammarise focuses her reporting on poverty, social services and affordable housing. Before joining WESA, she covered those topics for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for nearly five years; prior to that, she spent several years in the paper’s Harrisburg bureau covering the legislature, governor and state government. She can be reached at or 412-697-2953.