Union reformer calls proposed open-records change ‘taxpayer-funded stupidity’

By Andrew Staub | PA Independent

Under Pennsylvania’s open-records law, residents have the right to know how their government operates.

Now, a proposed overhaul to the law would give government employees the right to notification — at least when somebody requests a record that includes their home addresses. In turn, the employees could argue the records are exempt from disclosure.

Simon Campbell, president of Pennsylvanians for Union Reform, believes that could be an expensive proposition for taxpayers who fund the government agencies that would send the notices.

HEADS UP: A proposed change to Pennsylvania’s Right-To-Know Law would require that agencies inform public employees if records bearing their home addresses are requested.

“It’s taxpayer-funded stupidity,” Campbell said, pointing out that home addresses can be found anywhere from property records on county websites to the phone books hurled in the driveway each year.

Campbell knows first-hand the potential costs and headaches of a notification requirement. It’s just one of a handful of proposed changes that worry open-government advocates.

While the current Right-To-Know Law doesn’t require agencies to notify employees when a record containing their home address is requested, Campbell had to deal with exactly that last year after asking for the names and home/mailing addresses of all members of the State Employees Retirement System, a group of more than 230,000 employees and retirees.

SERS released 34,524 records but denied others. Campbell appealed SERS’ partial denial of his request, and the Office of Open Records ordered SERS to notify members they could participate in the ongoing dispute.

It wasn’t as easy as sending the annual Christmas cards. SERS hired a commercial printing service to send first-class notifications to 187,338 members. The mailings cost $91,662, said SERS spokesman Pam Hile.

Campbell’s mailbox filled, as about 3,250 SERS members responded with objections from all over the world, he said.

That seems like a lot of mail, but Simon sees it differently. About 98 percent of people notified didn’t care that their home addresses could be disclosed. Some of the people who objected also wrote their home addresses on the envelopes containing their objections, he said.

None of it makes sense to Campbell. He wonders why public employees would be notified under the proposed legislation but the public wouldn’t get a heads up about politicians requesting voter registration records so they can bombard people mailboxes with campaign fliers.

“To actually codify that in the law and require it? Oh my lord, are you kidding?” Campbell said of the notification requirement.

State Sen. Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester, is the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 444, which makes several changes to the Right-To-Know Law, including adding the notification requirement. The Senate unanimously passed the legislation last month, but it’s idling in the House State Government Committee.

PILEGGI: State Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi has been pushing for changes to the open-records law.

Pileggi’s spokesman, Erik Arneson, said the legislation is the result of input from people and organizations, compiled since the current open-records law was enacted in 2008.

While Campbell and others have criticisms, the legislation makes several changes that will please open-government advocates, such as easing requests to appeal decisions and putting campus police departments under the umbrella of the open-records law.

The legislation increases the amount of information state-related universities such as Penn State have to disclose, especially when it comes to financial information.

“While we still think that state-related universities are not the same as the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources … it is appropriate to require a great deal more information from them, especially on financial issues, because the state obviously gives them many millions of dollars every year,” Arneson said.

When it comes to Campbell’s stinging critique, Arneson doesn’t think the notification requirement would wreak havoc.

While some want to exempt home addresses from public records, Pileggi doesn’t agree and has tried to strike a compromise with his bill, Arneson said. The hope is agencies could use email to notify workers in a cost-effective way, he said.

That’s different, Arneson said, than trying to notify all dog owners in Dauphin County if somebody requests the dog-license database. That would be “extraordinarily burdensome,” he said.

Campbell’s situation is unique, too, in that the Office of Open Records required notification for employees and retirees. Pileggi’s bill would require it only for current employees.

“Mr. Campbell is fantastic at using florid language, but I don’t think the facts of what the bill says really matches his rhetoric,” Arneson said.

Either way, with two session days left next week, Arneson thinks there’s little chance the legislation will pass unless session days are added. That might be preferable to Campbell, as well as the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.

The PNA also opposes the legislation, largely because language in the bill would strip access to public records in the possession of government contractors.

The current law says, barring an exemption, such records that “directly relate” to a government function the contractor is carrying out are public. Pileggi’s bill changes the language to say “an agency which is party to a contract shall provide a copy of the contract and any public records of the agency related to the contract.”

That could be a problem, considering past cases have already shown that sometimes contractors — and not the state or local agency — possess the public records related to a contract.

“The language would allow the government to contract out functions and public accountability along with it, and that can’t be the result of the Right-To-Know Law,” said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel with the PNA.

The change would keep a broad range of records open while clarifying some of the “murkiness” around that provision of the law evident by the number of appeals and court rulings related to it, Arneson said.

“That’s our goal and our motivation,” he said.

The bill would also limits requests to legal residents of Pennsylvania. Other changes include changing the process for commercial requests and limiting the types of records inmates can ask for, an attempt to cut back on the voluminous appeals that prisoners file. Last year almost 41 percent of all appeals handled by the Office of Open Records were filed by inmates.

Campbell is focused mostly on the notification change. The Office of Open Records largely granted Campbell’s appeal, though it has been mired in even further appeals.

The whole tangled situation has come about even without notification requirements.

“If you want to do taxpayer-funded notice,” Campbell said, “we need to seriously think about that.”

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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