We the people

The House hearing on Tuesday addded momentum to the campaign for a stronger right-to-know law in Pennsylvania, a law starting with the presumption that public information belongs to the public. Rep. Tim Mahoney of Uniontown is the author of the House bill. Sen. Dominic Pileggi is the author of a similar Senate bill. The good news is that the historical competitiveness between the two houses may turn this into a race to get a bill passed. Informally or formally, a conference will sort out any differences.

The Inquirer piece on A1 this morning, Bridge ratings to be released, notes that the goal of open records is "expected to be a key legislative issue this fall." Pileggi has said it is his top priority.  My prepared testimony is on the Inquirer website. I summarized the results of a 2005 open records audit:

In 2005, 50 newspapers in the state along with The Associated Press conducted a survey of 700 agencies. Of 217 police agencies, 40 percent denied access to logs or incident reports. Of 130 school districts, half denied access to the employment contract for the superintendent.

The solid attendance at the hearing showed a high level of interest in the topic. The Post-Gazette highlighted the debate over 911 call information:

The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence wants to prevent disclosure of 911 call recordings. But Carl Lavin, deputy managing editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, said such access would allow residents to evaluate how well and how quickly emergency workers respond.

The Beaver County Times, which has spearheaded the effort to obtain the bridge data, emphasized Rendell’s role in the decision:

PennDOT stood firmly behind its policy of not releasing the ratings as late as Monday afternoon.

Biehler said he changed his mind again Tuesday morning after consulting with Gregory Fajt, Rendell’s chief of staff.

Rendell has been quiet in public though, making only general comments in favor of public disclosure. Despite the general sense among officials at the hearing that disclosure is a public good, the debates over particulars showed that many officials have lost track of their role. They are not in charge, they work for the public. Have they forgotten "We the people"?Take the discussion over email, for example. Anyone with a job in the private sector knows that an email account on the job is the property not of the individual, but of the employer. The boss has full access to that email account and all emails sent or received are available to the head of the company.

Government employees work for us, the public. There should not be any debate about the use of a government email account. Anyone reading a message sent from a government account realizes it is sent under the color of official authority. There should not be any question about making that email available to the employee’s boss — the public.

Advice to public sector employees: if you don’t want something disclosed, don’t do it.


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