Friday, October 19, 2007

Mahoney Open Records Bill Called Corruption ProtectionAct

Pennsylvania state Representative Tim Mahoney's bill (which was amended in the state Government Committee Wednesday, October 17, 2007), was called the Corruption Protection Act by "good government advocate and critic of the legislation," Tim Potts, founder of Democracy Rising PA...

Pa. open records bill, on fast track, becomes target for critics
10/18/2007, 6:18 p.m. EDT
The Associated Press


Revision to State open-records law criticized
The Associated Press, 10/19/07 11:31 AM EDT
UPDATED: 10/19/07 11:49 AM EDT

HARRISBURG * A proposed revision to Pennsylvania’s open-records law drew some harsh criticism from public access advocates Thursday, one day after it was hurriedly pushed out of a legislative committee.

State lawmakers and Gov. Ed Rendell have touted a revision of the Right-to-Know Law as the centerpiece of government reform efforts. The bill emerged from the State Government Committee late Wednesday and could be debated on the House floor as soon as next week.

But the immediate reaction was generally negative.

The bill in its current form allows agencies to deny requests they consider “burdensome,” which Pennsylvania Newspaper Association lawyer Teri Henning said is a vague and subjective term.

Henning said there are legal problems with a provision that would generally apply the bill only to newly created records. If an existing record is not open to the public now, it probably will not be open in the future.

“If the point is to improve access, then access should be improved,” she said.
“This bill is clearly not anywhere close to being ready for prime time,” said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause of Pennsylvania.

Tim Potts, co-founder of the government reform group Democracy Rising PA, called the amended bill “the Corruption Protection Act.”

“Their standard is ‘what is the least we can get away with’ rather than ‘what’s the best we can do,’” Potts said. “We don’t elect these people to give us lousy laws, we elect them to give us good laws, and this is lousy.”

Earlier this week, State Government Chairwoman Babette Josephs, D-Philadelphia, introduced a 21-page amendment based on months of research and negotiation. It narrowly made it out of her committee amid complaints that members and the public needed more time to digest it.

“So much for the reform process,” said Doug Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, which opposes the bill in its current form. “We have actually said, privately to a number of legislators, now that we have a bill to look at, please give us time.”

The bill would make all government records beyond a long list of exceptions available to the public and force government agencies to justify denials. But its many other provisions worry some of the people who have followed the issue most closely.

“This bill creates exemptions that are so large that there’s not much left of presumption-of-access at the end of the day,” said Jamie Blaine, a former newspaper publisher who edits the blog. “I guess there’s always the Senate.”

The bill would establish the Pennsylvania Public Records Office within the State Ethics Commission, with an executive director appointed by the governor. The office would handle records disputes, conduct training and set fees, among other things; disputes involving the Legislature, Attorney General’s Office, Auditor General’s Office or Treasurer’s Office would go straight to Commonwealth Court.

Some raised questions about whether a gubernatorial appointee would be willing to rule fairly against executive branch agencies.

“They should be letting the ethics commission appoint the director,” Kauffman said. “The whole idea of this is to divorce the decision making from those who might politically benefit from either withholding or exposing information.”

The draft aims to accommodate people whose prior dealings with the government were based on an expectation of privacy, said Tom Andrews, spokesman for House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese, D-Greene.

“If we reduce the sales tax, we don’t go back and give people a refund,” Andrews said.

Larry Frankel with the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union said the draft bill came reasonably near the mark in balancing privacy with the public’s need to know. Under House rules, a final vote probably will not occur before Oct. 29.

“I think it represents a good effort — not that it can’t continue to be worked on and improved,” he said.


Open-records bill becomes target for critics
Associated Press
HARRISBURG - A proposed revision to Pennsylvania's open-records law drew some harsh criticism from public access advocates Thursday, one day after it was hurriedly pushed out of a legislative committee.

State lawmakers and Gov. Ed Rendell have touted a revision of the Right-to-Know Law as the centerpiece of government reform efforts. The bill emerged from the State Government Committee late Wednesday and could be debated on the House floor as soon as next week.

But immediate reaction has been generally negative...


Pa. open records revision doesn't go far enough, some say


Pa. open records bill, on fast track, becomes target for critics

Less - missing missing missing - the more scathing remarks from good-government advocates and critics of the Mahoney Bill, and Teri Henning's full remarks.

House panel debates parameters of open records bill
By Kori Walter, For the Herald-Standard
Updated 10/19/2007 12:06:03 AM EDT

HARRISBURG - In a sign of just how jealously government in Pennsylvania guards the information it generates, a state House panel wrangled for more than three hours Wednesday night over a bill aimed at giving the public more access to budgets, meeting minutes, expense accounts and other government documents.

The House State Government Committee voted largely along party lines in favor of the first major overhaul in decades of the state's open records law. The full House of Representatives could consider the measure as early as next week.

Republican committee members objected to a flurry of last-minute amendments and unsuccessfully attempted to force a public hearing on a bill that has been completely re-written since it was first introduced in March.

Barry Kauffman, executive director of Harrisburg-based government watchdog Common Cause Pennsylvania, agreed with GOP lawmakers who argued the public should have the opportunity to review the bill before a committee vote.

"This is a highly inappropriate way to move any legislation, let alone an open records bill," Kauffman said. "There's no need to rush this."

In addition to criticizing the process, Kauffman and others found flaws in the legislation.

Although the bill would apply to the Legislature for the first time, lawmakers added language that would keep all state and local government officials' e-mail messages private.

A previous version of the legislation would have given the public access to only e-mail messages related to spending taxpayer money.

Kauffman said the e-mail provision could have been written more narrowly to exempt some correspondence between lawmakers and their constituents.

"It's absurd to just say all e-mail is out," he said.

The Pennsylvania Newspaper Association also complained that the bill includes unprecedented exemptions and permits state and local agencies to subjectively deny burdensome requests for documents and other information.

"We believe that as written, this proposal would provide less access than is available under today's Right to Know Law," said Deborah L. Musselman, the association's lobbyist.

However, lawmakers said the bill was a positive step toward ending the secrecy surrounding how Pennsylvania government spends money.

Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-South Union Twp., the prime sponsor of the legislation, heralded a provision that presumes most documents are public. Currently, the person requesting information must prove what they are seeking is considered a public document.

"We're coming out of the Dark Ages," Mahoney said. "Everyone is not going to get everything they want in this bill. It's a lot better law than we've ever had."

Rep. Deberah Kula, D-North Union Twp., agreed...

Also see

Proposal exempts correspondence from public review
By Kori Walter, For the Herald-Standard
Updated 10/18/2007 12:06:03 AM EDT

HARRISBURG - Most state lawmakers' e-mail messages and other correspondence related to public policy decisions would still be off-limits to the public under open records legislation scheduled for a vote today in the House State Government Committee.

Only e-mail messages that contain detailed discussions of spending public money would be available under a proposal to update the state's open records law sponsored by Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-South Union Twp.

Also see

House panel passes open records bill
Bucks County Courier Times
October 18, 2007

Previous posts


Anonymous said...

Corruption Protection Act is exactly what it is.

The Open Records Bill that came out of committee is nothing but a joke.

However, everything the committee failed to do can easily be rectified by the amendment process from the House floor.

Let's all watch to see who does what.

Larry Roberts

Net the Truth Online said...

The bill as originally proposed with its application to only "future" records was a joke, too, a sick joke on the public.

The State Government Committee is at fault also for not fixing that.

We can't just sit by and watch to see who does what when the House members meet to propose amendments, or deletions.

We have to write and contact our state legislators as noted previously here at Net the Truth Online, which included contact numbers for our local district representatives, Mahoney and Kula.

Now Mahoney claims in a Herald-Standard article the committee presented bill can be further fixed in the full House debate.

Mahoney said taxpayers have the right to any document that helps them understand how state or municipal governments spend money.

He said there's a good chance that further changes will be made to the bill before the House votes on the legislation later this month.

"I'm sure we are going to pick it apart when it goes on the floor, and maybe make it a better bill," Mahoney said. "I'm not happy on some issues."

And maybe make it a better bill? Why isn't it the BEST bill now?

That's not good enough because Mahoney still endorses his own portion of the bill applying it only to future records.

Rep. Mahoney needs to hear from his constituents for him to take action on his own to delete or withdraw the offensive portions of his proposal.

Why wait til it goes to the House floor? Why not do it right from the beginning?

What is there to protect that happened in the past?

Further, would the bill apply for instance to past election or legislative fraud investigations or will those be exempted?

Do it right, or don't do it. That's the message.

Enough appeasing this legislator or that legislator and back room dealings. That was the promise.

It has yet to be met.

BTW Thanks for your post. It's very welcome.