The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Editorials

April 13, 2014

Above the law? | City, manager ignore open records stipulations

JOHNSTOWN — Rules were made to be broken, according to an old adage.

And it seems to us, and several Johnstown residents, that that adage is what City Manager Kristen Denne adheres to.

John “Jack” Williams and Charlene Stanton have filed separate lawsuits against the city and Denne for allegedly failing to provide requested public records.

 In Stanton’s case, she asked Denne to allow her to view the city’s sewer financial records on Dec. 9. In Williams’ case, he asked Denne on Jan. 27 to allow him to see documents also pertaining to the city’s sewer financial records.

Williams filed his lawsuit at the Cambria County Courthouse on April 2. The next day, Stanton logged her lawsuit.

Is it just a coincidence that the lawsuits were filed a day apart? Could it be that Williams, a former city councilman and outspoken critic of city government, and Stanton, who sought a seat on city council but was not elected, have joined forces against the city and Denne? Many of the merits of Williams’ lawsuit were parroted in Stanton’s case. That is not our concern.

What does bother us, however, is that Denne, who holds the post of Johnstown’s open records officer, seems to trivialize requests for information.

A similar situation happened to one of our own. On March 19, reporter Dave Sutor requested access to sewer financial records from 2009-13. On March 30, he received an email from Denne stating that he could peruse the records. He had no further communications from Denne until April 3, when he was told he would be allowed to copy the information on April 7.

According to the Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law, the city has five days to respond to requests for information. In all three cases, the city failed to abide by the law.

A refusal by a public agency to respond to a request is the same as a denial, said Nathan Bierly, deputy director of the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records. A filer’s recourse is to appeal to the Office of Open Records, which is exactly what Williams and Stanton did.

In Williams’ case, Bierly’s office determined that he should be allowed access to the records he sought. A ruling to that effect was mailed on Feb. 20 to both Williams and Denne. The ruling warned that failure by the city to comply could lead to a $1,500 fine.

We understand that Denne has a lot on her plate and that dealing with right-to-know requests can sometimes be overwhelming and frustrating.

Nonetheless, Denne is required by law to respond to those requests within a given time frame. Failure to follow the rules could start costing the city money – funds that, in our opinion, it cannot afford to squander.

 

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