5 ways the government blocks you from ‘public’ information in Pennsylvania

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – March 11-17 is Sunshine Week, a celebration of access to open meetings and public records. Although Pennsylvania has laws that make government information public, there are several ways elected leaders can block your access to that information.

— There is a long list of exceptions to Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law governing public records; among those exceptions is the category of “noncriminal investigations.” Even though your tax dollars pay for them, the government can hide the final results. That’s why Governor Tom Wolf can keep the investigation into Lieutenant Governor Mike Stack’s treatment of state employees secret, and why you don’t get to see how schools, police, and elected leaders handle harassment claims.

State lawmakers exempt themselves from following the same public records rules as everyone else. They don’t need to turn over training documents, many staff records, or emails that show you how they make decisions.

Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act governing public meetings requires government agencies to keep “minutes,” or records of what happens during the meetings. But the law is vague about how detailed those minutes need to be and when they need to be posted. Lower Paxton Township hasn’t updated its meeting minutes since November 2017. Manager George Wolfe says the township is working on writing up and approving meeting minutes from the last three months; he says it’s been a tough process because of several additional budget meetings. Lower Paxton Township’s meeting minutes tend to me more detailed than those for other municipalities, and the township has recently taken steps to speed up the process.

— Violations of the Sunshine Act during executive sessions are hard to prove. Government agencies are allowed to meet privately in executive sessions, but only to discuss specific situations, such as personnel matters, collective bargaining strategy and negotiations, pending litigation or litigation that is expected to be filed, investigations, and consideration of the purchase of property. Since those meetings are private, claims that elected leaders discussed public business in private tend to turn into a “he said, she said,” scenario. There is a push to require agencies to record executive sessions and allow the Office of Open Records to listen to those recordings and come to a final determination when someone challenges the validity of the meeting.

— Committee meetings, where policies and ordinances get hashed out before the final vote, are often not heavily-publicized on municipalities’ websites. Camp Hill Borough Council keeps its committee meetings completely private, which is why the public did not get to weigh in on a new towing policy council passed after an ABC27 investigation uncovered concerns about police favoritism. People who live in the borough recently complained to Borough Council about being told they were not allowed to attend a committee meeting.

“I believe it’s very likely there is a violation of the Sunshine Act,” Office of Open Records Executive Director Erik Arneson said about Camp Hill’s committee meeting practices. Arneson’s office is tasked with Sunshine Act training.

The Sunshine Act says committees that “render advice” are agencies, and agencies are subject to open meetings requirements.

Camp Hill’s committees make recommendations to Borough Council.

ABC27 reached out to Camp Hill Borough Manager Pat Dennis for comment. He has not yet responded. In the past, council members have said their solicitor advised they are not required to make committee meetings public.

“Even if they are right, which I don’t believe they are legally, what’s the harm in opening these committee meetings to the public?” Arneson asked.

Some Camp Hill council members have suggested they’re open to reconsidering the practice, but have not publicly taken steps to do so.

“When you do your business in open meetings, the public has a lot more confidence in it,” Arneson added. “It generally results in a better end product. In general, it is much easier for corruption to go unnoticed when there is a secretive environment.”


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