Bucks activist wins quest for state employee addresses

Posted: February 02, 2014

In what the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records' executive director called the largest request the agency has decided, the office on Friday ordered the release of home addresses of about 16,000 state employees and retirees to an antiunion group led by a Bucks County activist.

After a case that involved about 30 state agencies and three unions, and drew 15,000 pages of submissions from interested parties, the state agreed that Simon Campbell's organization, Pennsylvanians for Union Reform, was entitled to the information gleaned from the State Employees' Retirement System.

Campbell, a former Pennsbury school board member who has filed more than 150 open-records requests with the state, was not satisfied. He contended the information improperly excluded the addresses of about 3,500 people who claimed that releasing their addresses might put them in danger.

And he took particular issue with the fact that nearly 200,000 employees and retirees - the number of addresses he sought in an earlier filing - were notified of his request and allowed to opt out of sharing their information, calling the process "a disaster."

Terry Mutchler, the agency's executive director, noted that Campbell got most of what he requested in his latest appeal, in which he lowered the number of addresses sought to about 20,000.

And she said the case is unique because it highlights the difficulty of balancing the right to make public information available to citizens with the rights of individuals who may be affected by the information's release.

Ultimately, the office ruled that addresses of public employees are public records, which, according to Mutchler, essentially allowed a citizen - even one acting on behalf of an activist group - to "create a mailing list at government expense."

Campbell's group filed its request last August, first seeking addresses for all 220,000 employees in the retirement system.

A few weeks later, the group was provided with about 35,000 addresses, but the rest were withheld for what the retirement system claimed were security concerns.

Campbell appealed to the Office of Open Records, and in December that agency directed the retirement service to notify nearly 200,000 members that someone was requesting their home addresses. If an individual opposed divulging the information, he or she could file a request to avoid doing so.

Campbell said that directive - and the fact that it was ordered by Open Records, a different agency than handled his original request - was a "train wreck" and pointed out that the notification, which was conducted by mail, likely cost taxpayers more than $90,000 in postage fees alone.

"The idea of some third party having objection rights is, in and of itself, an idea that will destroy the law for Pennsylvania citizens," he said.

Melissa Melewsky, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association's media law counsel, agreed with Campbell's objections - though her language was decidedly less pointed.

She said that addresses are publicly available for a number of reasons, including voter registration and property taxes.

Plus, she said, the fact that the individuals in the retirement system were participants in a government program was notice enough that their home addresses were public.

The ability for members to opt out, she said, "has the potential to create a significant burden on public access."

As for the broader impact of this case, she said there have been a sufficient number of instances in which the court has ruled that addresses are public.

"I think the decision . . . is in line with precedent we have from our appellate court and the law," she said.

Campbell said Friday he was unsure whether he would appeal.

But he said the whole incident displayed what, in his mind, was the "absurdity of government" and its attempts to restrict sharing public information.

"To the extent I'm pointing it out and profiling it," he said, "I'll take whatever labels people put on me."


cpalmer@phillynews.com

609-217-8305 @cs_palmer

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