2009-03-12 / Features

Open Records Law Fuels Spats With Municipalities


FRANKLINTOWN, Pa. (AP) - Every community has one: the gadfly, the complainer, the curmudgeon. The concerned citizen with a comment at the ready for the most ordinary of agenda items, pen in pocket for scouring budgets line by line to account for every dollar.

They are there to keep local government honest, with help from the state's new Right to Know Law that took effect in January.

But some municipalities are starting to complain that the law is miring them in paper work and creating logistical and financial headaches.

State and county agencies have set up offices and created positions to deal with requests under the new law. Borough feuds such as the 25-year battle that Jim Kilgore has waged against the Franklintown Borough Council in northern York County are testing how the law is working.

And Kilgore isn't just an interested citizen. He's a member of Borough Council.

"Municipal government touches residents in their everyday lives more than we do,'' said Joanne Burkhart, the openrecords officer for Cumberland County. "They have more requests than we do.''

Kilgore has made 16 requests since the law was enacted, and 11 replies were due to him by last week. The law allows five business days for replies, but the borough requested the maximum 30-day extension.

His requests ran the gamut of his gripes in the 25 years he's lived in the borough. How much is the borough secretary making? How much does the borough owe in liability insurance on a public park? What did the letter of complaint about him, read aloud at the last meeting, say?

"Things look and smell funny in this borough. That's all I really want to say,'' Kilgore said.

Dick Blouch, the Franklintown council president, estimated that Kilgore's requests will cost the borough $1,000 for certified mail and lawyer and administrative fees.

Governments of all sizes, even in small municipalities such as Franklintown, had better get used to it, said Matt Brouillette, the CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation, a Harrisburg-based nonprofit think tank that develops and promotes public policies.

"This is a new day in Pennsylvania where government is going to be more open and transparent. I don't have any sympathy for government,'' he said. "Go cry to somebody else. Don't cry to taxpayers and citizens.''

Kilgore is serving a two-year term on the Borough Council after losing the election for a fouryear term in 2007. But his involvement with its agendas and politics goes back years.

It all started with the trees, he said. In 1999, Kilgore collected the signatures of 31 borough residents unhappy with trees that the borough had planted along the sidewalks in front of their houses. The petition requested that the borough replace the sidewalks because the trees' roots were starting to break up the concrete. The borough eventually took care of the trees.

Kilgore also has complained about tax increases, a neighbor burning trash and a council member who Kilgore said made a racist remark at a gas station in town. Kilgore even was accused of lunging at borough secretary Deb Walker and threatening her during a heated discussion of the sanitation budget, and he was cited with disorderly conduct.

Blouch said Kilgore is not a new problem for the 532-resident borough with a $156,000 yearly budget. But he's escalated things recently.

"It paralyzes the function and the operation of the borough,'' Blouch said, noting that Walker has had to spend much of her day in the borough office on Baltimore Street searching for and collating Kilgore's requests.

"He's always been after records. It could be because he retired, so he has more time,'' Walker said.

While Kilgore and others like him might have long been filing requests, it is now more difficult for local governments to ignore them, said Barry Fox, the deputy director of open records for the state. His office held seminars to educate local government officials on the law before it went into effect Jan. 1.

Before then, Pennsylvania's Right to Know Law was known as one of the least transparent in the country. Now, Fox said, he sees appeals come into his office frequently from those who have been ignored - 97 in January and February.

It all comes with the territory of more government transparency, he said. He's also seen municipal officials - who know they have residents like Kilgore - begin to squirm.

"These citizens exist in every municipality ... these gadflies ... We get asked a lot if they are going to come out of the woodwork now,'' Fox said.

Gary Berresford, the borough manager in Wormleysburg, has worried that his borough's longtime agitator will begin inundating the office with requests under the new law. That person has asked for the same documents repeatedly, Berresford said.

"It's not that they want those records - it's that they want to harass the people to get those records,'' Berresford said. "They are unhappy with the borough, and they are asking for things they don't even need.''

But borough councils can use the open-records law to their advantage, too.

Kilgore taped Franklintown's most recent meeting Feb. 4. The council vice president served an open-records request on behalf of six residents for Kilgore's tape. Such tapes were exempt under the state's previous Right to Know Law, but they recently were ruled fair game for such requests.

Kilgore is still waiting for his five most recent requests. He's also waiting to see whether they will help him keep his municipality on its toes.

"I used to ask about a budget and get served up some sort of legal goodie,'' he said.

And now?

It took the full 30 days, but Walker mailed Kilgore an itemized list of answers to his first 11 requests, with eight pages of enclosed copies of treasurer's bonds and contact information for the borough's waste management service.

Kilgore's not satisfied, he said. He said he can't read the sanitation budget. Now he's waiting eagerly for replies to his remaining five requests.

If he's still not happy with the responses, there's always the appeals process.

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