Saturday, October 27, 2007

Pass Given to Mahoney on Bad Bill?

Why did Mr. Williams state the original legislation as submitted by PA Rep. Tim Mahoney (D-51st) was a "good" bill to begin with? It wasn't. The original bill pertained only to opening many already accessible records, and would have applied to future records, not past records.

Mahoney's bill had itself contained two-dozen exemptions.

The bill was amended further toward the downside by the State Government Committee, making it worse, rather than better.

It's doubtful the full House will amend to the upside as well.

It's puzzling that Williams didn't call a spade a spade. And that calls into question the neutrality of the PA Newspaper Association. Ah, look at the title given the letter: Open records reform thwarted. Key word, reform. Reformers. Rather than call one of the media darlings a non-reformer for presenting a bad bill to begin with, the PA Newpaper Association would rather place the blame on the State Government Committee "process."

Now we know.

Open records reform thwarted
By Tim Williams, Pennsylvania Newspaper Association
Updated 10/24/2007 09:59:39 AM EDT
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The Pennsylvania House of Representatives stands poised to vote on a new open records law for Pennsylvania, House Bill 443. Unfortunately, the bill, as amended, would actually make access more difficult in Pennsylvania and would make Pennsylvania government more closed than ever before.

How could this happen, when legislative leaders and Gov. Rendell have all pledged support for open records reform and for making Pennsylvania government more open and accountable to its citizens? That's what we want to know.

House Bill 443, as originally proposed by Rep. Tim Mahoney (D-Fayette), was a good bill. It created the presumption of access to agency records and contained a list of exemptions for certain documents that required protection, including medical records, documents that would disclose ongoing police investigations, and homeland security-related documents. The Pennsylvania Newspaper Association supported many of its provisions.

Last week, however, the House State Government Committee voted to amend the bill. Not only did the Committee completely replace Rep. Mahoney's bill with language that would close much of Pennsylvania government, it rushed the entire process through in less than a day. The amendment was not publicly available until hours before the committee meeting.

No stakeholder had sufficient time to review or comment on the amendment prior to the meeting. Significant amendments were added during the committee meeting, without any public input, and the committee suspended the rules that would normally apply to timing of amendments. Legislative leaders have been promising meaningful reform, both substantive and procedural, for years. But at the first opportunity, they suspended their procedural rules to rush this bill through committee.

They suspended their rules to propose a bill that would prevent public access to all agency e-mail. What an invitation for abuse. Want something to remain confidential? Send it by e-mail. Pennsylvania would be the only state in the country that has such an exemption.

They also suspended their rules to propose a bill that would exempt all "correspondence and related records by and among a public official, a public official's staff and an agency." What could possibly justify such an overbroad exemption for communications between public officials and public employees?

Finally, the bill would not apply to most documents in existence at the time the bill is passed and would preserve all existing court decisions. Isn't the idea to make government more open? Why would we want to prevent access to pre-existing documents or preserve the court ruling that PennDOT's lists of most dangerous roads and intersections are not public records?

It is widely recognized that Pennsylvania has one of the worst open records laws in the country. A 2002 survey by the Better Government Association ranked Pennsylvania's open records environment 48th out of the 50 states. The Commonwealth tied with Alaska, and only Alabama and South Dakota were considered worse. House Bill 443, as amended, just might get us to 50th place. If this is reform, we don't want it.

Tim Williams is president of the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association

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