Things are looking up, says Pa. records office chief

Posted: July 27, 2013

HARRISBURG - Though the staff is small and demand for government records are at a high, the future of Pennsylvania's often-ignored Office of Public Records looks brighter than ever.

So said Terry Mutchler, the office's executive director, during the monthly press club luncheon in Harrisburg on Monday. After five years of operation, Mutchler said, her team just moved into a permanent office space and will receive additional funding to bolster its staff of 12.

And Mutchler, known to challenge public officials she believes are not acting in the interest of transparency, said she has a direct line of communication with members of Gov. Corbett's top staff.

"We don't change our legal analysis in any way, and we've never been asked to, but it's nice to be able to pick up the phone and have an appropriate conversation when we need to, instead of trying to do it in the dark," she told the luncheon crowd.

Since being appointed by Gov. Ed Rendell in 2008, Mutchler has led her office in issuing more than 7,000 final decisions to citizens' requests for government documents under the state's Right-to-Know law.

While Mutchler is proud of the work her office does and thinks it is important for citizens to access government documents, she said some of the requests her office receives are frivolous and unnecessarily expensive for taxpayers. She cited one instance where a candidate who lost a local election outside Philadelphia filed 300 Right-to-Know requests in three months because he was angry at the winning candidate.

On the flip side, she said, she also still runs into government employees who do not believe in the public's right to know.

"You have crazy people on both sides of this," she told the luncheon crowd. "You have citizens and members of the media who are often convinced that every public official is a criminal, and then on the other extreme, you have public officials that don't like the public."

Since the law was enacted five years ago, attempts have been made to both broaden and restrict it.

Several legislators, for instance, have argued for expanding the law to cover state-related universities, such as Pennsylvania State University, which receive hundreds of millions in government funding and support.

But others have recently proposed legislation that would severely limit the rights of convicted felons and inmates to access information through the Right-to-Know law. One bill would deny inmates access to public records across the board, while another would deny convicted felons access to any document that contains personal information about corrections officers.

"I think they should lose the right to access information until they get out," said Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler), whose State Government Committee would first vote on the legislation. "I don't think they should have any right left."

For her part, Mutchler said about 30 percent of requests her agency receives come from inmates in state prisons who may be searching for anything from definitions of rules to the material used to make prison underwear. Though prisoners have limited access to some rights, Mutchler said, she believes they should still be able to access information if they need it.

"Any time you restrict access, it starts a dangerous slide," she said. "We want to be going the other direction. We don't want to be cutting people off."


Contact Josh Fatzick at 717-787-5990 or jkfatzic@g.coastal.edu.

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