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Right-to-Know training sheds light on practical application of law

Representatives from three local municipalities attended training on Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law. Of the three, Lancaster was required to be there.

The session, held Wednesday in Cranberry Township, discussed how governments should respond to public requests for government records. The training was open to the press and municipalities.

Lancaster Township leaders were required to attend, after a settlement in August over a lawsuit filed by the Butler Eagle. At stake in the suit was access to records about agreements and correspondence with a former manager.

In the settlement, Lancaster agreed to pay damages and receive training about the Pennsylvania Right-to-Know Law.

Administrative employees from Lancaster, Zelienople and Pine Township, Allegheny County, attended the training.

A team of experts discussed the application of Right-to-Know requests, appeals, and exceptions, going over the text of the law and explaining common pitfalls.The team consisted of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Local Legal Initiative attorney Paula Knudsen-Burke, along with attorney Neva L. Stotler, education director/counsel Scott Coburn of the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, and media law counsel Melissa Melewsky of the PA NewsMedia Association.

During the training, Stotler said the law behooves agencies — townships, municipalities, boroughs and other agencies for which public records laws apply — to keep on top of the rules for organization and retention of documents.

“The Office of Open Records encourages you to have good retention practices,” she said. “If you have boxes and totes and file cabinets full of craziness, then that stuff is part of your universe, whether you like it or not, whether you think there is a document in there or not. If you create a crappy universe for yourself, then it’s going to be harder for you to respond effectively.”

Melewsky advised that while pre-decision deliberations are typically exempt from public records, discussions and deliberations held via email that make up a quorum of supervisors in a township or borough count as public records.

“If you get involved in appeal to the (Office of Open Records), and you submit those emails that show you’ve been deliberating via a quorum via email, this exception will fall away,” she said. “It’s not applicable if you’re having a quorum discussion behind closed doors.”

Coburn recommended that municipalities establish a conversation with requestors. Although the reason for asking for records cannot factor in to whether they are approved or denied, it is still worth the communication, he said.

“Having a dialogue with requestors is so valuable,” he said. “Not a week goes by without a conversation with one of our members where I say, did you have a conversation with them? No? Why not? A lot of it is the confusion with ‘I thought I can’t ask what they are doing.’ You can ask what they’re trying to get to; you just can’t deny it based on the reason why they are (asking). You get a lot of awkwardly drafted requests, and that’s just the way it’s going to be.”

Lancaster manager C. Michael Foote said the training was useful.

“Anytime we as a team — we had four members of our staff and two of our elected (attend) — anytime we as a team can get knowledge and get it all firsthand, it makes us better as an organization,” he said. “I thought it was good for us, and again, the more we can hear things, and the more we can see things, I think, the better."

To Knudsen-Burke, training sessions like these are particularly helpful to illuminate a complex law.

“These are so important to be able to explore what can sometimes be a complicated law, and to explain the perspectives of the users as well as the administrators, so the government side as well as the media side, and really help break down some of the barriers that sometimes come up,” she said. “I think a lot of times, if we are able to do more education and conversation, it really can help the process move more smoothly for everyone involved.”