The Senate Wednesday passed Senate Bill 444 (Pileggi-R-Delaware) designed to strengthen the state’s Open Records law by dramatically expands the information available from state-related universities, improves the appeals process for requestors, establishes a new fee structure for commercial requests, and makes other important changes.
“Six years ago, the General Assembly enacted a completely rewritten Open Records Law for Pennsylvania,” said Sen. Dominic Pileggi, the author of Act 3 of 2008. “That law has provided the public with access to tens of thousands of government documents that would not have been available under the previous law.
“The new law has been widely praised. Senate Bill 444 seeks to improve the Open Records Law by building on what we’ve learned over the past six years, responding to decisions by the courts and the Office of Open Records, and with input from both those who request records and the agencies who respond to those requests.”
Senate Bill 444 provides unprecedented access to budget information from Pennsylvania’s four state-related universities: Temple University, Penn State University, the University of Pittsburgh, and Lincoln University. The schools will be required to create searchable, sortable and downloadable online databases including extensive budget, revenue and expenditure data; the number of employees and aggregated, non-personal employee data; and the number of students and aggregated, non-personal student data.
The state-related universities will be required to post information about contracts valued at $5,000 or more on their websites annually. Most of the universities will be required to report the top 200 employee salaries. A state-related university with fewer than 2,500 employees will continue to report the top 25 salaries, as required by the existing law.
Senate Bill 444 makes it easier for requesters to file an appeal when a government agency denies access to records and giving the Office of Open Records better tools to manage its caseload. It also clarifies that the Office of Open Records is an independent agency and can conduct in-camera record reviews when necessary.
Because appeals from inmates represent 40 percent of the work at the Office of Open Records, Senate Bill 444 narrows the categories of records available to inmates – but ensures that inmates can continue to access their own personal records and records related to their incarceration.
Many agencies, especially local governments, have been burdened by commercial requests since the new law was enacted. Senate Bill 444 establishes a new fee structure that allows agencies to recoup actual costs for commercial requests.
This bill also clarifies how the law applies to third-party contracts, provides a new notification process for requests which involve the home addresses of agency employees, and limits requests to residents of Pennsylvania, a change sought by local government agencies and authorized by a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Senate Bill 444 was introduced in April 2013. In May 2013 and October 2013, the Senate State Government Committee, chaired by Senator Lloyd Smucker (R-Lancaster), held extensive public hearings on the bill. Senator Pileggi also thanked Senator Matt Smith (D-Allegheny), the Democratic Chairman of the State Government Committee; Senator John Blake (D-Lackawanna), who offered the amendment adding provisions related to state-related universities; and Terry Mutchler, Executive Director of the Office of Open Records.The bill now goes to the House for consideration.