Sunshine week is dedicated to promoting open government and the people’s rights to public records.
The Office of Open Records in Pennsylvania, established as a part of the reformed Right to Know Law in 2009, helps citizens file requests for public records. Terry Mutchler, Director of Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records says, “your city councils, your police departments, your school districts, your charter schools, your planning commission, any agency that is governed under this law, commonwealth or local agency, is subject to the Right to Know Law.”
Mutchler says Pennsylvania citizens can request all kinds of state records including but not limited to:
• The city’s spending
• Cell phone usage of public officials
• School district
• Emails of state agencies and officials
Pennsylvania was not always known for its transparency and accessibility though. It was formerly ranked 49th in the country which Mutchler says is because people assumed these records were closed.
Pennsylvania Senator Dominic Pileggi passed the legislation that established the Office of Open Records. He says, “citizens should have access to government records and information about the activities of government, in real time, as quickly as possible, at little to no cost.”
Although Pennsylvania citizens are allowed to request any public record, not all requests are honored. Mutchler says the Office of Open Records helps citizens appeal denials. “We are the appeals agency. So in other words, under this law, if a citizen goes to the city of Philadelphia City Council or the mayor’s office or to the planning commission and they ask for a records and the agency denies the record, the citizen the requester, has a right to come to the Office of Open Records.”
Pennsylvania is not the only state with this type of system in place to help citizens obtain public records. New Jersey has an office called the Government Records Council. They help mediate disputes with citizens and their access to government records. Delaware does not have a central agency to assist in the appeal process, but people are able to make an appeal with the Attorney General if they feel they have been wrongfully denied.