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Pennsylvania lawmakers considering set of proposed changes to Right-to-Know Law

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HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — A 2009 law that made wholesale changes to Pennsylvania's open records law has been praised for expanding the universe of government records available to the public and improving the process by which people can obtain records.

But it's far from perfect — just ask the judges who have to interpret it — and now there's movement in the Legislature to amend it.

The Senate State Government Committee voted this week for a bill that would clamp down on records request by inmates and revamp the timeframe in which appeals are heard by the Office of Open Records.

The bill also would formalize in the law the office's authority to privately examine disputed records as part of its process of resolving appeals after an agency has turned down a request.

This is the third time the sponsor, Sen. Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, has tried to get lawmakers to make changes to the version of the Right-to-Know Law he maneuvered through the General Assembly seven years ago. The proposed changes stalled during the past two legislative sessions.

Pileggi's goal, he said, is to "make it more efficient and less burdensome to local governments without compromising the ability of citizens to obtain information from their government."

The bill would expand the amount of information available under the law from Pennsylvania's four state-related universities: Penn State, Temple, Pitt and Lincoln. People could learn more about salaries paid to university employees and review financial records in searchable online databases.

Pileggi's bill would more clearly spell out what information has to be released as part of a "time response log" kept by 911 centers, providing the public with the time the emergency call came in, when responders arrived and the incident's address, mile marker or nearest intersection.

People who work in government would be notified if someone is seeking their home address, giving them time to challenge it on grounds their safety could be compromised.

Inmate requests make up just under 40 percent of appeals to the state Office of Open Records, and most of them get denied.

The American Civil Liberties Union's state legislative director, Andy Hoover, says singling out inmates is a bad idea.

"Today it's inmates. Who's going to be blocked from using it next?" Hoover said. "And frankly, inmates have a very direct, personal experience with an arm of government that's expensive and rarely operates transparently."

The amendment would let the government impose "reasonable standard charges" to find, review and produce the records. Reporters, authors and scholars would be exempt for work-related requests.

Elam Herr with the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, which supports the proposal, said commercial requests can be a burden, particularly for smaller townships. The proposal would not charge for the first hour of work.

"Businesses are using the open records act to have municipal employees do their legwork for them at no cost, or very minimal cost," Herr said.

The Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association would like to see lawmakers rein in some of the exceptions that are widely used to deny access, such as predecisional deliberations and noncriminal investigations.

"We don't believe that's how they were intended when the law was written, but that's the way the law has developed," said Melissa Melewsky, a lawyer with the association.

Pileggi said he's tried to address those criticisms but has not found a solution.

"We haven't come up with a set of words that would still protect what should be protected yet allow the information that's not intended to be protected to be covered by those terms," he said.

The full Senate could take up the bill this fall, giving the House time to consider it before the end of the year, he said.

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