Court gives public an open-records win

JOHN OVERMYER
JOHN OVERMYER
Posted: June 16, 2012

As the state's open-records watchdog, Terry Mutchler fields one complaint after another from Pennsylvanians who were denied access to government data by agencies trying to throw up unwarranted roadblocks.

So, Mutchler, executive director of the state Office of Open Records, was watching closely as a crucial challenge to Pennsylvania's Right-to-Know law made its arduous journey through the appellate courts.

At stake, she said, was nothing less than citizens' ability to "get into the door of an agency" to exercise their right to see exactly how state and local governments conduct the public's business.

The wrong decision, Mutchler said, would have "given agencies a green light" to deny anything but the most formal and technically correct request for records.

That's why Monday's ruling by Commonwealth Court was a big win for Pennsylvanians. If it's appealed, the state Supreme Court should uphold the sound reasoning of the 4-3 lower-court opinion.

The appeals court ruled that the state Gaming Control Board wrongly denied a request for data that failed to cite the open-records law and didn't meet other technical requirements.

Mutchler says her office repeatedly sees instances where public officials deny record requests by being sticklers for such details.

The sheer volume of appeals to her office alone — more than 4,000 — is a troubling indication of the scope of the problem. With the appeals-court ruling, though, bureaucrats should have far less justification for being surly.

"The General Assembly," wrote Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt, "intended that state and local agencies should presume that written requests for records are right-to-know requests" and that they need not "contain a formal salutation."

Perhaps the ruling should be printed in triplicate — and posted in government offices around the state.  

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