The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

March 6, 2013

Prisoner appeals keep records office busy

John Finnerty
CNHI Harrisburg Bureau

HARRISBURG — Charles Hoyer, a convicted child molester serving time in state prison, filed an open records request in 2011 with a Lebanon County school district seeking a tax document related to a county detective.

School officials rejected his request, arguing that the document didn’t exist because the district had eliminated the occupational tax, and if the document did exist, it would have the home address of the detective on the paperwork.

Dissatisfied with the response from the school district, Hoyer filed an appeal with the Office of Open Records. The open records office determined that the district would have to release the document if the district  had it, though under Pennsylvania law, home addresses of law enforcement officers are redacted when they are released to the public.

It was one of 22 appeals Hoyer filed to the Office of Open Records in 2011.

In 2012, he was even busier, filing 39 appeals to the open records office.

Hoyer is not alone.

Prisoners account for 31 percent of the appeals filed to the Office of Open Records, executive director Terry Mutchler said Wednesday. In Pennsylvania, almost all government documents are considered open to the public, but there are 30 exceptions, most of them focused on information that is personal or relates to matters of public security.

Government offices, if they reject a request for a document, must explain which exception they believe is involved. The citizen then has the right to ask the Office of Open Records to determine if the government office is complying with the law.

Last year, the office dealt with 2,188 appeals, a 25 percent increase over 2011.

In response to complaints from the Office of Open Records and other state agencies, Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester, will introduce legislation later this month  to revise the records law in a number of ways, including placing new limits on what kind of documents are available to prison inmates.

Other possible changes involve setting up a fee structure for those who are seeking public documents for commercial use, and a variety of clarifications about whether quasi-governmental agencies are public or not. Records of volunteer fire departments, for instance, would mostly be considered private. Campus police would be considered the same as any other police department and expected to comply with the open records law.

 Erik Arneson, communications and policy director for Pileggi’s office, said that the legislation would change the rules so that inmates may only request documents containing personal information about them.

The idea does not sit well with advocates for prisoners.

William DiMascio, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, based in Philadelphia, said it is inappropriate to diminish the rights of inmates because government officials do not feel like they have the resources to handle the demands being placed on the office.

Pileggi’s language mirrors the approach taken in Wisconsin, where inmates are only allowed to file record requests related to documents about themselves or relatives.

Other states, including Virginia, have entirely excluded prisoners from access to open records.

The Pennsylvania Open Records Office has 11 employees – including seven attorneys who hear appeals. The office is asking the state to provide the additional funding needed to add two attorneys and support staff, Mutchler said.

Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed budget would increase funding for the Open Records Office by about $37,000. But the $1.4 million proposed for the office is $400,000 short of what it needs, Mutchler said.

“The caseloads our attorneys are handling are about 400 cases, and that is more than assistant district attorneys in many counties,” Mutchler said.

In addition to the appeals, the office is also involved in about 200 court cases, in which either the government agency or the person who requested the document, appealed the open records office ruling.

Pileggi’s legislation would not completely eliminate the prisoner appeals. Open records office databases show that inmates regularly seek records about themselves, and file appeals when the Department of Corrections and other agencies decline to provide the information.

There were 63 appeals filed in 2012 involving disputes in which inmates wanted the prison system to provide documents that the Department of Corrections insisted it did not have. In many cases, the prisoners were seeking legal documents, such as sentencing orders.

“In some cases, they just want the documents so they can have paper they turn over and use to write,” Mutchler said. In the case of sentencing orders, inmates may want to know the exact number of days they are supposed to be incarcerated so that they can keep track to make sure they don’t spend more time than necessary behind bars, she said.

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