I am testifying on Tuesday to a state legislative committee, headed by Rep. Babette Josephs, that is considering strengthening the Pennsylvania right-to-know legislation, widely considered the weakest in the country. An editorial in The Inquirer this morning hit the right tone:
A state House panel will review a bill that would give residents more clout
when seeking information on everything from zoning decisions to expense reports
of public officials.
Current state law has the issue backwards. It places the burden on citizens
to prove why any government record should be open for public inspection.
A bill from Rep. Tim Mahoney (D., Fayette) would shift the burden onto state
and local agencies to explain why certain records should be kept secret.
The measure contains other important features. It would cover the
legislature, which is currently exempt. It would create an independent office to
handle requests for state records and appeals of denials. It would increase the
fines for willful violations from $300 to $1,000.
I will post more from the hearing when I return. Here’s a taste of my testimony:
Officials say no so often because they can say no with
impunity. Substantial penalties, including legal fees, must be part of any
right-to-know law that will be taken seriously. We have seen that there is a
human tendency to keep information out of the public’s hands. A strong law will
mandate penalties when that happens.
These public records belong to the public. For a
democracy to function smoothly, citizens need access to public information – to
their information. That is why the First Amendment was written. That is why you
are working so hard to write better right-to-know legislation.
I do know that Rep. Josephs has asked for a PennDot representative to talk about that agency’s refusal to release bridge safety data. As of Monday afternoon, the agency was not going to be represented.
The Beaver County Times has been very pointed on the importance of this information:
PennDOT has denied two requests from The Times to disclose specific rankings
for structurally deficient bridges in western Pennsylvania. The most recent
denial came Thursday – just hours after a bridge spanning the Mississippi River
collapsed in Minnesota.
Releasing the bridge rankings could pose a security risk and panic the
public, PennDOT officials have said.
Kirkpatrick said Monday that the agency is reviewing its policy on disclosing
"In general, we have held that bridge inspection information is
confidential," Kirkpatrick said.
Take a look at Iowa. The Department of Transportation in that state makes all the information available. Can Pennsylvania do the same?