Open Records Bill Approved by Senate; SB 1 Moves to House for Consideration

Legislation to dramatically strengthen Pennsylvania’s Open Records Law was approved by the Senate today, according to Senator John R. Gordner (R-27), a cosponsor of Senate Bill 1.

“Openness builds trust in government,” said Sen. Gordner. “The public should have the ability to review government actions – to understand what government does, to see when government performs well and when government should be held accountable.”

Senate Bill 1, which now moves to the House for consideration, makes dramatic changes in the records available from various government agencies.

  • For executive agencies and local agencies, Senate Bill 1 reverses the presumption of access to records and puts the burden of proof on a government agency denying access to a record.
  • It provides a clear list of 28 plainly stated exceptions for executive agencies and local agencies. These exceptions include such things as criminal investigations, Social Security Numbers, personal financial information, and individual medical records.
  • Legislative agencies, including the Senate and the House, are required to provide access to 17 categories of records.
  • Judicial agencies are required to provide financial records.
  • The four state-related universities – Temple, Penn State, Pitt and Lincoln – are required to provide information along with a list of the highest 25 salaries for university employees.

Senate Bill 1 also makes many important changes to the process of obtaining public records in Pennsylvania:

  • It creates an Open Records Clearinghouse in the Department of Community and Economic Development to provide information, training and advisory opinions on Open Records.
  • It improves the appeals process, making it easier for a citizen to challenge an agency’s decision not to release a record.
  • It reduces the time period for response by a Commonwealth agency from 10 to 5 days.
  • It increases financial penalties for noncompliance and makes it easier for plaintiffs to recover attorneys’ fees if an agency acts in bad faith.
  • It requires the Open Records Clearinghouse to establish standard fees for photocopying records, and to create a uniform form that can be used to request records.
  • It gives the Open Records Clearinghouse real independence by requiring the governor to appoint an executive director who serves for six years.

“‘The Senate has implemented many important government reforms this year,” said Sen. Gordner. “But no other reform comes close to matching the impact of a strong Open Records Law.”

Other reform measures adopted by the Senate this year include posting more information online, giving the public easy access to all roll call votes, the full text of Senate debates, and a live video feed of Senate floor activity.

The Senate has also approved legislation to increase penalties for violating the Sunshine Law, to eliminate lame-duck voting sessions, and to prohibit bonuses for state employees. All of those measures are now before the House for consideration.