County agencies checked for Right to Know compliance

PAT FRIDGEN

The Echo Pilot was one of 38 news organizations in Pennsylvania to test the state's Right-to-Know law this fall. The new public access law was updated last year and took effect Jan. 1, 2009. Associated Press writer Mark Scolforo coordinated a statewide effort to see how government officials responded to requests for information by people unknown to them.

On Oct. 6 and 7 reporters fanned out to ask for public records in the 2009 Audit Survey of Compliance. Scolforo then compared those results to similar studies conducted in 1999 and 2005. The subjects under review for the latest test were a superintendent contract for a school district, an emergency response log for the 24-hour period of Oct. 3, a police blotter for the same timeframe, an application or resume of a public employee, and three most recent grant applications.

The Echo Pilot and Public Opinion in Chambersburg shared resources to participate in the audit. Three of the five agencies approached fully disclosed the information that was sought.

The Fannett-Metal School District mailed a copy of the superintendent's contract after the reporter filled out the online RTK request on the district's website, as instructed during the personal visit.

The Franklin County county control office sent the person to the basement for the 911 records. There the citizen was asked to provide identification or they could not see the information. The 911 representative insisted an ID was necessary as the log was only shown for federal reasons. The reporter finally gave their name, which Scolforo said to do only if necessary, and then the official said he didn't have printouts because of the volume of calls.

The Shippensburg police department employee also did not release the blotter of calls police responded to during one particular day. She asked the person making the request their name and why they wanted the information. She then said no to any access, but referred the visitor to the dispatch center and shared the telephone number. Under questioning, the employee said the department did not have a RTK request form on its extensive Web site.

The Chambersburg Police Department asked the auditor to fill out a RTK form, asking who they were and why information on the police chief’s resume was needed. The person did not respond. The department provided the resume a few days later, either for review or to purchase copies. In the interim the chief called a newspaper asking if it had sent anyone with the request, and if so, why.

A Greene Township employee gave the requester a RTK form and said the list of grant applications would be available within five days. The township called the auditor during that period and said the information could be reviewed or copies could be made.

Comparisons

The Franklin County 911 and Shippensburg Police Department responses were considered failures in the audit. Scolforo reported that one in seven requests failed completely, compared to one in three in the previous years. He found that one feature remained the same. "Some government officials peppered requesters with questions about who they were, where they worked and why they wanted the records."

Under the law, no one is required to provide a reason for seeking information.

The superintendent contract was most easily accessible by the auditors. Full compliance was met by 64 out of 65 districts.

The emergency response log compliance rate was 20 out of 37 attempts, and six partial provisions.

Police blotters were released in 32 out of 46 cases, a 30 percent failure rate. The failure rate in 2005 was 40 percent.

The success rate for obtaining applications or resumes of public employees was 34 full-disclosures and 12 partials out of 55 requests.

Out of 71 requests for grant applications, 64 were honored.

Scolforo concluded, "A year after Pennsylvania's revamped Right-to-Know Law took effect, it may be transforming attitudes among government officials about the public documents and information under their control."

The other nearest newspaper participating in the audit was the Gettysburg Times.