Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law
In February, 2008, then Governor Rendell signed the new Right-to-Know Law into effect, completely overhauling the prior 1957 Right-to-Know Act. The new law provides for access to, and copies of, any â€śpublic recordâ€ť:Â a record of a government agencyâ€™s â€śactivityâ€ť which is created, received or retained pursuant to law or in connection with a transaction, business or activity of that agency.Â By definition, records which are subject to thirty (30) statutory exemptions, are exempt from disclosure pursuant to law, regulation or judicial order, or are protected by a privilege (doctor â€“ patient, attorney â€“ client, etc.) are not â€śpublic recordsâ€ť.
Each governmental agency designates an Open Records Officer to process and respond to Right-to-Know requests. If the agency has a website, it must identify that officer on the website.Â Although the State provides a general request form, which must be honored, an agency may create its own.Â If so, it must be available on its website.
Requests must be specific; so to allow an agency to understand what record is being requested. Thus, a request must be limited in time (number of months or years), scope (such as authors or recipients of e-mails), and subject matter.
An agency must respond, in writing, within five (5) business days of receiving a request. An agency may invoke an extension of time up to 30 days to respond; but must do so in writing within those first five (5) days, giving both the reason(s) that it cannot respond within five (5) days as well as its estimated response date. An agency must then allow access to or give reasons for denying access to the record.
An agency may charge a reasonable cost (limited by the State Office Of Open Records) for making copies. An agency may produce records in various formats (paper, electronic, etc.); but is not required to create a record which does not exist (such as compiling data for comparison), or in a format in which it does not exist.
A requestor may appeal an agencyâ€™s denial of a request to the State Office Of Open Records. Attorneys in municipal litigation are using the Right-to-Know more and more frequently as an alternative to, or to supplant formal Discovery.Â These topics, however, are the subjects of future writings.
Chris Gittinger is a member of Gross McGinley’s Insurance Defense and Municipal Practice Groups. He regularly represents municipal agencies and authorities in legal matters pertaining to litigation, real estate, zoning, and more.