2009-04-09 / Local & State

Pa. Newspaper Group Blasts Open-Records Ruling

By Peter Jackson ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - The Pennsylvania Newspaper Association has sharply criticized the state Open Records Office for a ruling that the group says would allow school boards and other agencies to conduct more public business behind closed doors.

"These are public access laws and if they're going to be interpreted, I think they should be interpreted on the side of public access,'' Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the association, said Friday.

At issue is a draft budget that the Northampton Area School Board discussed at a special meeting in February.

The board provided a copy of the proposal to a reporter for The Morning Call in Allentown the day after the meeting but redacted the dollar figures. The reported appealed, and the Open Records Office upheld the school board's decision to withhold the numbers.

In her ruling, appeals officer Lucinda Glinn reasoned that the board didn't reach a decision at the meeting and could withhold the information under a provision in the state's Right-to-Know public records law that exempts documents used in "predecisional deliberations.''

"There are no facts of record that show that the school board intended to take official action upon the redacted document at issue,'' Glinn wrote. "There is no evidence that discussions for the purpose of rendering a decision were conducted, or that the Board did any more than informally discuss, question and learn about'' the proposed budget for the year that starts July 1.

Emily Leader, an attorney for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said the case is a textbook example of the kind of situations lawmakers intended the "predecisional'' exemption to cover.

"This exemption has meaning and, if you made (the Northampton draft budget) a public record under the facts of this case, I don't see how the exemption could have meaning,'' Leader said.

Melewsky said the budget figures should have been made public because the "predecisional'' exception does not apply to a proposal once it is presented to a quorum of board members for deliberation at a public meeting.

Pennsylvania's open-meetings law - also called the Sunshine Act - defines "deliberation'' as "the discussion of agency business held for the purpose of making a decision.''

Melewsky said the Right-to- Know and open-meetings laws are intended to ensure public access to most agency deliberations, whether they are confined to the day of the vote or unfold over the course of weeks.

"If we don't have the documents to follow along in those discussions, then the Sunshine Act and (the provision of the Right-to-Know Law) could be rendered meaningless,'' she said.

The newspaper has 30 days from Monday's ruling to decide if it will appeal the ruling in court.

The newspaper association, which lobbied for last year's overhaul of one of the nation's weakest open-records laws, warned that the decision could turn back the clock by more than two decades to a time when the open-meetings law required policy makers to hold open meetings only when they were voting or taking official action - allowing them to debate issues and make decisions behind closed doors.

Leader, the school boards' attorney, said the question of whether or not deliberations should be open will often depend on the circumstances.

"I think the courts won't have trouble parsing this case by case,'' she said.

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