This really happened: A citizen writing about her local government for LNP asked a top township staffer for a detailed meeting agenda, a document prepared at taxpayer expense.
The response: Sorry, you’ll need to make a written request, and we’ll get back to you — in five business days.
The staffer was holding a copy of the packet in his hands at the time.
This, too, is a true story: Pennsylvania’s highest-ranking state senator tried to charge reporters $160 an hour for a detailed look at how his campaign spent money — documents that are considered a matter of public record under the state’s election code.
The total bill, had the senator not backpedaled under pressure from this news organization, would have been about $2,000.
One more: A local charter school played dumb when pressed for the name of its open records officer; every state and local agency must have someone designated as such. “No clue,” responded one employee.
The school was, to no one’s surprise, unresponsive to repeated requests for basic information about how it was spending taxpayer money.
We live in exciting times. The internet has made it easy and relatively inexpensive for governments and public schools to share information, information that is compiled and vetted and quickly disseminated with context by this and other news organizations across the land.
It has allowed for the digitization of libraries of newspapers, literature and history, making them the common property of the world. It has given anyone with a smartphone and data plan the ability to stream terabytes of footage from government meetings to any citizen with a smartphone and data plan in the same town or on the other side of the globe. And it has allowed citizens to organize and petition their government.
Yet obtaining meaningful government-meeting agendas and other basic yet vital information remains a challenge.
Understanding how safe our neighborhoods are — perhaps the most fundamental information we need — is off-limits because the county, at the request of local police, has made dispatches private, and some authorities are in no hurry to communicate with the public in a timely manner. (It took 24 hours for one local force, which employs a full-time officer to communicate with the public, to notify citizens there’d been a murder-suicide earlier this month. It then declined to answer questions.)
The golden age of information and connectivity clearly hasn’t reached many cities, boroughs and townships, even those with healthy tax bases and millions sitting in reserves. Neither has a Right to Know Law that, since 2009, presumes most records are open to inspection and places the burden on governments to prove otherwise — a law whose objective is to empower citizens by granting them access to information about the activities of their government.
The trend bends toward obstruction and opacity instead of access and transparency.
This is a problem for reporters and citizens alike.
Consider the number of appeals to Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records, the agency that enforces the Right to Know Law. In 2018, it handled 2,228 cases, and most of them — 1,268, or 57 percent — were filed not by journalists but by citizens who had been denied access to records. Appeals filed by the news media accounted for about 6 percent of the total, according to the office.
In Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association runs a legal hotline. It gets about 2,000 calls every year. That’s more than five a day, which is not terribly surprising given there are 1,546 townships, 959 boroughs, 500 public school districts, 67 counties and 56 cities in Pennsylvania — each with its own governing body.
“There’s no shortage of public access and transparency issues in the commonwealth,” said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the NewsMedia Association.
What are citizens to do in the face of such obstruction?
Understand that our reporters stand with you, and stand to serve you.
“The first duty of the press is to obtain the earliest and most correct intelligence of the events of the time, and instantly, by disclosing them, to make them the common property of the nation,” former Times of London editor John Thadeus Delane wrote in 1852.
Which means we work together.
If you turn to Page A3 of this newspaper any day of the week, you’ll find information along its bottom about how to share tips, information and documents with our reporters online. Those without internet service — in Lancaster County, 48,111 of all 198,565 households, or nearly a quarter, have no internet subscription, according to census data — you can also call the news desk at 717-291-8622.
Today, we’re starting something new.
We’ll post on LancasterOnline important records our reporting team obtains from local governments, in raw form, with the intention of making them the common property of the citizens of this county and beyond.
We invite you to share what you’ve discovered, too.
We’re in this together.
Let’s get started.
The LNP and LancasterOnline Right to Know Repository can be found here.
Tom Murse is the managing editor for news and sports at LNP and LancasterOnline. He can be reached at 717-481-6021 and email@example.com.