2009-02-05 / Local & State

A Lively First Month For Pennsylvania Open Records Office

By Peter Jackson ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Pennsylvania's fledgling Office of Open Records, defender of the public's interest in a transparent government, turns one month old this weekend.

It's been an interesting start.

Inmates at state prisons have written to the agency under the mistaken impression that it can help them obtain records that prove their innocence.

A man planning a tribute to the "Marlboro Man" of cigarette advertising fame was convinced there are Pennsylvania records that would help his cause and appealed to the office for assistance.

"We had people who've asked us if they can get the address of an old high-school buddy,'' said Terry Mutchler, the reporterturned lawyer who is the agency's director.

Of course, the office itself is not a record repository, but rather the agency that enforces the newly expanded state Rightto Know Law and settles disputes over records scattered throughout state and local governments.

In the months and years ahead, after it finishes hiring its seven or eight staff lawyers and becomes fully operational, the office's appellate rulings will be instrumental in fine-tuning the boundaries of that law.

In the meantime, the staff spends a lot of time answering dozens of e-mails and phone calls that arrive daily from citizens, journalists and government officials.

It also has to weed out "appeals'' that lack legitimate grounds. For example, the law allows agencies a specific time frame to respond to records requests, and some people have tried to appeal before the end of that period.

"There's a lot of confusion here at the beginning,'' Mutchler said.

More than two dozen legitimate appeals are pending, most of them filed by citizens whose requests for records have been denied by local agencies.

The office also issues nonbinding "advisory opinions'' on specific questions.

For example, the Pennsylvania Recorder of Deeds Association questioned whether the law even applies to its members, who maintain real-estate records in each of the 67 counties, and, if so, whether they must comply with the 25-centsa page limit that the Office of Open Records has imposed on photocopying fees.

In her opinion, Mutchler noted that recorders of deeds are listed in the state constitution's definition of "county officers'' and, therefore, covered by the law.

However, because other laws trump the Right-to-Know Law in the event of conflicts, the recorders may continue charging 50 cents per page because the state Judicial Code permits it, she said.

In a pending request from Allegheny County, the borough council of Franklin Park asked Mutchler whether tape recordings of council meetings that the borough secretary uses in compiling minutes of the meeting are considered public records under the Right-to-Know Law.

"The borough needs to know whether it is proper to continue to maintain the recordings only for the short amount of time needed to create the written minutes or if it needs to undertake a new practice of storing the tapes and making them available for the long term,'' wrote borough solicitor Robert Max Junker.

A request from Franklin County suggests that a number of elected county offices - district attorneys, sheriffs, registers of wills, clerks of court and prothonotaries among them - should be treated as "judicial agencies.''

Using that interpretation, affected agencies could withhold all but financial records, instead of having to comply with the much broader disclosure requirements that apply to nonjudicial agencies.

The county solicitor cited state law and a Commonwealth Court ruling to buttress his argument that the offices in question should be considered part of the state's unified judicial system.

Mutchler said she hopes to issue an opinion in that case next week.

"We're overworked already,'' she said.

Return to top