Public window needs to be wide open
Between a long summer vacation and an impending month of campaigning, state lawmakers have left themselves a narrow window to conduct public business. They should make sure that the public's window for access to government records is opened as wide as possible.
One of the items on a short to-do list is amending the state Open Records Law, which was passed in 2008 and implemented in 2009. It revolutionized the transparency of local government in Pennsylvania.
Prior to 2008, the law held that a few specific records inherently were open to public scrutiny, but that the vast universe of other documents were presumed to be exempt unless the party seeking the data could prove otherwise. The new law reversed that presumption, exempting a few specific records from disclosure but opening the vast universe of other records, unless the government agency withholding the data could prove they should be kept closed.
That shift in burden was exactly correct. Moreover, the law created a mechanism to resolve disputes over access.
Lawmakers likely will amend the law primarily to include under its provisions the four state-related universities - Penn State, Pitt, Temple and Lincoln.
That's to the good. But lawmakers also have been under pressure from some local public officials to re-establish some of the restrictions under the old law.
Legislators should reject those efforts and further expand openness based on the experience of the law's first three years of operation.
For example, many local governments routinely invoke a 30-day extension to provide requested public documents, even though that extension was meant for cases when requests are complex or data is difficult to retrieve. The law should emphasize its original intent and create a penalty when public officials misuse the extension simply to delay.
Likewise, the law should make clear that police incident reports are public records, and require police logs to include specific information.
Public accountability is the underlying purpose of the law. Lawmakers should enhance their own accountability by expanding openness.