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New court ruling stresses gov’t openness

While America and individual states have varying levels of laws guiding openness of government, laws that have changed through the years reflective of high court rulings and legislation, most government officials understand the critical importance of public access to the workings of government.

Acting on behalf of all residents, news media often seeks information that government holds or, in some cases, holds back. And when media requests for access are declined, journalists think hard about the value of pursuing those requests and whether added pressure is warranted – including the possibility of court litigation.

In recent years, the Herald-Standard, our sister newspaper in nearby Uniontown, Pennsylvania, was forced to make such a decision. The newspaper had prevailed in a 2018 court ruling as part of a legal battle seeking the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to turn over public records.

But it didn’t end there. Earlier this month, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court added to that victory by ordering the Department of Corrections to pay $118,458 in legal fees to the newspaper to cover costs associated with procuring documents associated with the open records request.

In the ruling, justices found the state Department of Corrections acted in “bad faith and willful and wanton behavior” in its response to the newspaper’s open records requests several years ago. The ruling is the largest monetary sanction against a government agency in that state’s history.

The 6-1 ruling by the justices found the department of corrections had acted in bad faith in responding to the newspaper’s open record requests, while a narrower 4-3 decision ruled that the newspaper was entitled to the legal fees. The DOC must also pay a $1,500 civil penalty.

The legal fight stemmed from right-to-know requests filed by the newspaper in 2014 while reporting on whether a fly ash dump located near SCI-Fayette in LaBelle was causing higher cancer rates in inmates lodged at the state prison.

The investigation undertaken by the newspaper was the kind of important work that media often pursues for members of the public, and in this case, inmates and their families who aren’t able to do it themselves.

In this instance, the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records determined the newspaper’s request fell under right-to-know law, but the DOC failed to disseminate all of the requested information. The newspaper was forced to go to court to retrieve all the documents. The state’s Right-To-Know Law that went into effect in 2009 allows for requestors’ attorney fees to be paid by a government agency, along with a civil penalty if it’s determined it purposefully withheld the requested documents.

Herald-Standard publisher Michael Scott called the decision a victory for open records, regardless if they’re requested by journalists or concerned citizens.

The “decision will have far-reaching impacts that will protect requests for anyone who makes a right-to-know request in Pennsylvania,” Scott said.

That’s important to remember because government openness benefits everyone – not just media.

In a story reported by the Observer-Reporter newspaper in Washington County, Pennsylvania, Michael Joyce, an attorney for the Pittsburgh-based law firm of Saul, Ewing, Arnstein & Lehr that represented the newspaper, said this:

“It’s really a gigantic win for open government and open records. I think it sends a message to government agencies in Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the country (that) if you ignore your basic duties under these open record laws, there are severe sanctions that can follow.”

No request to access documents owned by the public should ever cost $118,000.

Sadly, however, the win means taxpayers of Pennsylvania will pay these fees that never should have been incurred.

Government sometimes forgets it is doing the people’s work. Its salaries are paid by the people. And the documents it holds are owned by the people.

Yes, it must tread carefully when making decisions about confidentiality of records, but this case proves that when wrong decisions are made to withhold information, it is the public that pays the price – in more ways than one.

blinert@tribtoday.com

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