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Pulling the blinds down on government in Pa.



Published: Sun, June 24, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Before Allegheny County Chief Executive Jim Roddey decides whether to sign or veto legislation dealing with property assessments, he would do well to pick up a copy of last Sunday's Cleveland Plain Dealer and read the front page story headlined "Bungled appraisals benefit a lucky few."

The story reveals that some quite prominent residents of Cuyahoga County got big breaks on the property appraisals of their fancy homes conducted by the county auditor's office. The public has a right to know when government behaves in a fashion that raises eyebrows, and in this instance it was the newspaper that blew the lid off the reappraisal fiasco. The newspaper in an editorial used the word "inexcusable" to describe the fact that the county auditor's office reduced by more than $115 million the value of residential property.

Website access: We now borrow that same word to describe what the Allegheny County Council did recently when it voted to make it more difficult for residents to conduct a search of property appraisals on a popular website. As a result of council's action, Internet users would no longer be able to type in the name of the property owner and access the records pertaining to the appraisal of his property. Only an address and property block and lot number would provide access to the record.

Thus, if a resident wanted to find out what some prominent businessman, politician or major campaign contributor is paying in property taxes, he couldn't do it by merely typing in the name of the individual. Therein lies the problem.

As Councilman Dave Fawcett, a Republican from Oakmont, one of the two lawmakers who voted against the legislation, warned, the county's assessment system will be viewed with suspicion if the public isn't able to find out easily whether people in positions of power are receiving favorable treatment.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette quoted Fawcett as saying, "I think this particular search engine is really very valuable." So do we -- but perhaps not for the same reason as the member of county council.

We've long expressed our dismay at Pennsylvania's rather archaic laws as they pertain to open meetings and public records. Unlike Ohio, which has largely removed the barriers that restricted the public's access to government, Pennsylvania's legislature continues to resist openness.

The action by the Allegheny County Council to place restrictions on how property assessments can be accessed on the web -- www.2.county.allegheny.pa.us -- proves our point.

Darkness: We urge county Chief Executive Roddey, who last month vetoed legislation that would have completely removed the names of the property owners from the website, not to give in to the forces of government darkness.




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