Tuesday, March 20, 2007

"Sunshine Week" in PA Neglects Statutes

Last week (March 11-17, 2007) was designated as "Sunshine Week" in Pennsylvania by certain advocacy groups.

Consider the agenda of open public access to government documents & processes that "National Sunshine Week" addresses annually. Then reflect on this: Pennsylvania Statutes are not posted officially online, in one place, by state government.

That deficiency should be added to the agenda for government records reform.

Wikipedia explains "National Sunshine Week" as follows:

Sunshine Week is an initiative spearheaded by the American Society of Newspaper Editors to educate the public about the importance of open government and the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy.

Each year, in mid-March, coinciding with James Madison's birthday and National Freedom of Information Day on the 16th, hundreds of media and other participants write news and feature articles and opinion columns; post special Web pages and blogs; create infographics; draw editorial cartoons; create public service advertising; [and] put on public seminars and forums to engage public discussion. * * *

Funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the first nationwide Sunshine Week took place March 13-19, 2005. The Knight Foundation continues to support the event until 2008.
The Pennsylvania Newspaper Association promoted "Sunshine Week" in Pennsylvania, as indicated in its posted article entitled "It’s Sunshine Week: Do you know where your state legislators stand on open government?":

Sunshine Week, held this year from March 11-17, is a national initiative to increase awareness and encourage discussion about open government and freedom of information.

At the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, the trade association for Pennsylvania’s newspapers, we are involved in open records and open meetings issues all year long. Our legal hotline received over 2100 calls last year and over half of these related to difficulties that newspapers and citizens had in gaining access to government records and proceedings.

You may have already heard that Pennsylvania has one of the weakest open records laws in the country. What you may not know, however, is what this lack of access means to Pennsylvania citizens and how our law, known as the Right to Know Law, could be corrected to improve access and accountability in government. In honor of Sunshine Week, we’d like to take this opportunity to tell you a few things about Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law that you may not know. * * *

Pennsylvanians need greater access to their government. After years of working on these issues, we at the PNA are convinced that the fundamental first step toward meaningful reform is to amend our state Right to Know Law to create a presumption of access to public records. * * *

PNA’s open records initiative is called "A Brighter Pennsylvania". Various articles appeared in newspapers throughout Pennsylvania consistent with this agenda, noting "Sunshine Week" and advocating greater openness & accountability in government operations at all levels.

For example,
see: "Sunshine Week Highlights Some Lowlights", by David Hare, published March 14, 2007, in the Reporter Online (Philadelphia, PA).
Debra Gersh Hernandez is unequivocal in her estimation of the importance of Sunshine Laws that regulate open government and freedom of information.

“It’s extremely important because in this democracy the people have a right to know what their government is doing and why” Hernandez said.

The rule applies for governments in the White House to city
‚ state and county seats‚ she said.

The Pennsylvania Sunshine Law‚ enacted in 1987‚ requires all public agencies to take all official actions and conduct all discussions and deliberations at public meetings. No behind-closed-doors maneuverings allowed.

The exceptions to that rule are few – such as discussion of litigation and personnel matters. * * *

Charles Davis is executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition at the University of Missouri‚ Columbia‚ where he also is an associate professor.

If Missouri’s adherence to Sunshine Laws ranks somewhere in the “muddled middle” as Davis said‚ then Pennsylvania would be closer to rock bottom.

“It’s pretty bad. The culture of government secrecy in Pennsylvania has been so incredibly powerful” he said.

Still‚ Davis pointed out signs of change such as Gov. Ed Rendell’s proposed legislation that would widen access to public information.

"Sunshine Week" concluded with its advocates issuing demands for change. See: "Sunshine Week concludes with a call to action", dated March 18, 2007, published in the Pottstown Mercury.

Governor Rendell appears favorably inclined towards further legislative change of Pennsylvania's laws regarding availability of public records. See: "Rendell pushing for improved public access", by Jessica VanderKolk, published March 19, 2007, in the Altoona (PA) Mirror.

Local lawmakers differ on how transparent to make state government, but Gov. Ed Rendell said Tuesday [March 13, 2007] that he will propose legislation this month to widen public access. * * *

According to an Associated Press report Tuesday, Rendell plans to change that by drafting a revision law making most government records open to the public. He also will propose an ombudsman’s office to improve access. * * *

Rendell’s proposal would be a significant change to Pennsylvania law.

“We’re very encouraged by it,” she said of Rendell’s proposal. “It would make it clear government records are presumed to be public records.”

Several lawmakers are drafting open records legislation, and the House Speaker’s Commission on Legislative Reform is considering changes to allow better public access.

The debate will swirl around issues of affected governmental bodies, covered governmental actions, privileged documents, availability & examination of public records, applicable legal presumptions, and on & on.

I pose a much simpler, more fundamental request that does not involve any of those issues: Please make all Pennsylvania statutes available publicly, free, updated, officially, in one place, on the internet!

PA is alone among all the states in not making its statutes -- already-enacted public laws governing the conduct of people in this Commonwealth -- available on the internet. This situation is intolerable, and must be changed.

How can one governed by Pennsylvania's laws follow those laws -- or know if others are following the laws -- if statutes are not made available in an easily-accessed, reliable form by the government that enacted those laws? This seems pretty fundamental to me. Yet the situation continues to our disadvantage.

The lack of online Pennsylvania statutes is confirmed by Pennsylvania's own internet port into all of state government -- the PAPowerPort -- when it posted an answer to its own question (circa 2004):

Where can I find [Pennsylvania] state laws or statutes online?

State laws or Statutes are not available online. You can research state laws in any of the state libraries across the state. Please see the Blue Pages of your phone book for the location of state libraries near you. If you are unable to obtain this information locally,you can get a paper copy by contacting the Legislative reference Bureau at 717.783.1960. Legislative bills, however, are available via the Internet. Please visit the online Bill Room

Content Last Modified on 9/1/2004 7:30:01 AM

According to a message posted by Dan Giancaterino on April 11, 2005, viewable on the website of the Jenkins Law Library (a library in Philadelphia that has provided legal resources since 1802), Pennsylvania stands alone in not providing public access to its governing state laws:

Pennsylvania is the lone U.S. state without a free version of its statutes on the Web. And that won't change anytime soon.

Last year [2004] the PA House Parliamentarian was quoted as saying, "It's come up before, and all I can say is we periodically discuss it. There are some of us in favor of it, but it's just never gotten off the ground."

Recently I emailed Thomas Martin, a local attorney, for an update on his unofficial PA statutes Web site. He told me that he hasn't been able to update the site for several years now.

As anyone who's managed the care and feeding of a Web site can attest, it takes a lot of time and money. If anybody ever deserved public support for a Web site, it sure is Tom Martin!
The Philadelphia Inquirer urged a change in an article entitled "Alone among states, Pa. keeps statutes out of cyberspace", by Mark Scolforo, published November 20, 2004.

In 49 states, state laws that govern everything from landlord-tenant relations to the number of penalty points a motorist can earn for a speeding ticket are just a few mouse clicks away.

Web sites maintained by the individual state governments give the general public the power to do their own legal research without paying for pricey legal textbooks or visiting a law library. The one exception: Pennsylvania.

"It's come up before, and all I can say is we periodically discuss it," said House parliamentarian Clancy Myer. "There are some of us in favor of it, but it's just never gotten off the ground."

Although its proud legal tradition dates to the earliest colonial times and includes the nation's oldest Supreme Court, Pennsylvania remains mired in last century when it comes to electronic access to 79 groups of statutes that run from Aeronautics to Zoning.

The main reason is that a legal publishing company owns the copyright to "Purdon's Pennsylvania Statutes Annotated," a multi-volume behemoth that represents the definitive version of state statutes, said Joel Fishman, an assistant director for lawyer services at the Duquesne University Center for Information and Allegheny County Law Library.

"You don't know how many people from across the country are trying to use Pennsylvania statutes every day that are unable to access the materials," Fishman said. * * *

But, no such change in this situation was suggested during "Sunshine Week".

Last year, I sent email messages to a few legislators suggesting a route for change. I now renew my suggestion publicly.

I had proposed introduction of a resolution in the Senate or House, backed by appropriate funding, directing the Joint State Government Commission, with the cooperation & assistance of the Legislative Reference Bureau, to
study the problem of no public internet posting of a reliable, official version of Pennsylvania's enacted statutes, with a view towards making all Pennsylvania statutes available online within three years. Understanding the magnitude of the undertaking, I now would suggest a five-year period.

If you are disturbed by this situation too, I suggest that you contact your legislator, affected state offices, or the Governor's Office.
You can find a list of state agency contacts here. You can find a list of current House members here; and a list of current Senate members here.

I just looked at the lists. I found them through a quick search -- of the internet.

* * *
Update: 03/21/07:

An article appeared in The Intelligencer (Philadelphia) on March 20, 2007, entitled "
Law could open up state records" by Brian Scheid.

The article noted federal legislation passed last week by the House of Representatives (now going to the Senate for consideration), in Washington, D.C., which spotlights "freedom of information" issues nationally, and which may influence legislative developments in Pennsylvania on similar issues.

The article repeated the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association's views of "freedom of information" in Pennsylvania:

“In Pennsylvania, we have bad, unworkable and impractical open-records laws,” said Melissa Melewsky, a media law attorney with the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, a trade group.

“The government has all the information and the public has all the burden.”

“If there's any way people in Harrisburg can keep something from the public, unfortunately, they do,” said Gilliland, managing editor of the Potter-Leader Enterprise in north-central Pennsylvania. “The knee-jerk reaction is to keep everything secret.”

Four new open-records laws are being bandied about Harrisburg, including one that Gov. Ed Rendell's staff is drafting and one that was introduced by state Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-Fayette County. Both would change Pennsylvania law by making the presumption that state records are public. Mahoney's bill also calls for setting up a statewide clearinghouse for records requests.

Unfortunately, I still find nothing in such reports about official public posting of already-enacted laws -- the Commonwealth's governing statutes.

Update: 04/03/07:

I note another editoria about the need for open records in Pennsylvania, as published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on April 2, 2007, entitled "Make Pa. records more open --The law now is among the weakest in the nation, with lots of small rules than can keep state data under wraps", by Bob Martin.

Unfortunately, still no mention about public posting of enacted statutes.

Update: 04/26/07:

Perhaps my email messages sent
to some Legislators in late 2006 & again prior to my posting, or the energy & focus brought by "Sunshine Week", did have some effect on the issue of public posting of PA statutes online, after all.

I was not aware on March 20th (when I wrote the original posting) until today, that a large group of PA Senators introduced SB 422 on March 14, 2007. It simply was not reported prominently in the news.

Then, after my posting, on March 29, 2007, various PA Representatives introduced a similar (but not identical) bill, HB 976, to accomplish the same result: Public availability on the world wide web of PA statutes.

See: PA EE&F Law Blog posting
"Bills Propose PA Statutes Online!" (04/26/07) for the text of the bills introduced.

Now I have hope again. It is time to press forward and get this done.

Update: 06/13/07:

For an update on the Legislature's progress, see:
"Pa. House reform panel supports wider open-records law", by Mark Scolford, posted on June 13, 2007, by the Centre Daily Times:
A state House commission on Tuesday unanimously recommended widening Pennsylvania's Right-to-Know Law to make most government records, beyond a list of exceptions, available for public inspection.

Pennsylvania law currently defines just two categories of government records as public, making it among the weakest access laws in the country.

"I'm pretty impressed," said Common Cause of Pennsylvania executive director Barry Kauffman after the vote by the Speaker's Legislative Reform Commission. "They've made a very clear statement that we need to make major strides in opening government records to the public."