Getting public information when you ask for it – a step forward

    A few weeks back I wrote about the city of Philadelphia paying $227,000 to a software company that failed to deliver a workable product.

    In order to learn more about the how the company was selected and what requirements and controls were contained in their contract, I did what I’ve done countless times as a reporter- I emailed the director of the city agency handling the contact, asking to see the request for proposals for the project and the contract with the software firm, Perficient Inc.

    I knew the information I requested was public, and that the state’s recently-strengthened Right to Know law applied, because my request was in writing.

    I got an email from a city attorney telling me the city has a policy for such requests, and because mine wasn’t on the “standard statewide Right to Know Form,” they regarded my email as an “informal request” not subject to the requirements of the Right to Know law. I could re-submit my request on that form, in which case “the city will deem your informal request to have been withdrawn.” In other words, the clock on my request would re-set to zero.

    After a brief conversation with the attorney, Chris Difusco, I decided to let my informal request stand. I asked for the stuff on May 10th. No response yet.

    Let the sun shine in

    I mention this because last week, Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court slapped the wrist of the state Gaming Control Board for ignoring a written request for information that didn’t follow the Gaming Board’s policy for such requests. Their policy requires that the request be addressed to the board’s Open Records Officer, that it specifically reference the Right to Know law, and that it be submitted on a form provided on the Board’s website or on the standard form provided by the State Open Records office.

    The court found the Gaming Board in error. I particularly like this language from the court opinion:

    “We conclude that the General Assembly intended that state and local agencies should presume that written requests for records are Right-to-Know requests. First, the Right-to-Know Law repeatedly refers to “written requests for access to records,” but it does not use the term “Right-to-Know Law requests.” Second, the Right-to-Know Law’s only requirements dealing with the composition of a written request are that the request be sufficiently specific to allow the agency to identify the requested record and include the requester’s name and address. Third, the Right-to-Know Law prevents technical deficiencies in a written request from nullifying the request”

    Terry Mutchler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, was mighty pleased with the ruling.

    “It was a very critical case in my view, because it really gets to how a requester gets in the door of an agency, to seek records of his or her government,” Mutchler told me. In other words, a written request for records is a Right to Know request. Period.

    “It’s not like you need a magic form. It’s not like you need magic language,” she said.

    Still waiting

    I’d hoped the ruling would mean the city has to abandon it’s practice of treating requests like mine as “informal” because they didn’t use the standard form. But in fact the ruling said the state Gaming Board should have notified the requester of its policy so he could re-submit the request on the form they want. And I have to admit that’s what the city did with me.

    When the city finally shares the information I asked for, I’ll let you know if it sheds any light on the software debacle. In the meantime, the court ruling is good news for citizens who want to know what their public officials are up to.

    Mutchler notes it was a split decision, and could be appealed to the state Supreme Court. You can read the ruling and dissenting opinion here.

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