Don't mess with Pa. Right-to-Know law - LancasterOnline: Editorials

Don't mess with Pa. Right-to-Know law

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Posted: Friday, March 18, 2011 8:46 am | Updated: 12:55 am, Thu Sep 12, 2013.

Pennsylvanians have reason to celebrate this week &tstr; Sunshine Week. We're entering the third year of the state's new Right-To-Know law, which allows citizens to look at thousands of documents.

But the law now is under attack by some public officials who would prefer to operate in secrecy.

Often they argue that they're protecting privacy. But the changes they suggest actually are intended to protect themselves from personal responsibility for the actions they take and the money they spend.

Take House Bill 364, for example, introduced by Rep. RoseMarie Swanger, currently being reviewed by the House State Government Committee. It would exempt public employees' home addresses from public disclosure.

That would have made it a lot harder for folks to realize that the woman who crashed early one morning while driving drunk with pot and pills in her car was actually a schoolteacher on her way to work.

Unless folks know their public officials personally, it would also make it difficult to recognize when a township supervisor uses a road crew to repair and pave his driveway, or a county official gives a contract to a business run out of his house, or the borough zoning officer lives in a building that violates numerous codes.

Then there's House Bill 298, introduced by Rep. Robert Godshall and now in the House Judiciary Committee. It would ban the release of coroners' photos, videos or audio records.

Supporters claim this would protect families from the pain of having unscrupulous people publish gory photos of their loved ones. They fail to mention, however, that the bill would prevent even the families of the deceased from reviewing the records.

Numerous Pennsylvania families have sought such records to see the evidence that their loved one died in the manner portrayed by a coroner &tstr; accident, homicide or suicide.

Coroners don't want family "second-guessing" their opinions or snooping through "their" records. So they are seeking to make the records secret.

Another secrecy effort &tstr; Senate Bill 247, introduced by Sen. Dominic Pileggi, would exempt public employees' W-2 forms from public release.

If the bill were passed, the public no longer would know how much any government employees make. The salaries of all local government employees, all school employees, all the thousands of department workers and legislators in Harrisburg would be secret.

Gone would be the days when the public could learn the salary of a government employee and decide, "That's reasonable" or "That's too much."

Other "reform" efforts attempt to hide the dates of birth for individuals on the public payroll or in public records. Those who want to close the records say doing so will protect public employees from identity theft.

But what it really would do is prevent public employees from being identified. Many people in Pennsylvania have the same name. It is only address and date of birth that allow clear identification of each one.

In a 2006 incident, for instance, it was the date of birth in court papers that helped reporters recognize that the man caught driving with a blood-alcohol content of .346 percent (.08 percent is the current legal limit) was then-state Rep. Kenneth Ruffing, of the Pittsburgh area, not either of the other two men with that name.

In Lancaster County, with its high number of identical names -- Martin, Miller, Smith, Rivera, Stoltzfus -- confusion is certain if individuals are not identified by full name, age and address.

There are eight Heather Smiths in the Lancaster phone book, 10 Carlos Riveras and 19 Robert Martins. If any one were charged with a crime or involved in an accident, would the others of the same name want their friends to think they were involved?

Of course not.

Now more than ever, Pennsylvanians need to know who criminals are and where they live. They need to know who is on the public payroll, what they are earning and what they are spending.

Any move to hide identities would end up being a step toward a less safe and a more expensive Pennsylvania.