The federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), forerunner of the locally-known Right to Know Law (RTKL), was initially signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 4, 1966, making FOIA half a century-old this year. To keep pace with the times, the law is amended every decade, at the very least, to work synchronically with advancing technology.
The RTKL was signed by former Gov. Edward G. Rendell on Feb. 14, 2008, under the same premise as FOIA, to make information about the business and transactions of public agencies more accessible to the public.
On the recent July 4th, President Barack Obama signed a bill calling for a reformation to facilitate access to public records. For one of the bill’s components, Obama revisited his 2009 memorandum, released the first day he took office, which emphasized the need for all government agencies to operate under the “presumption of disclosure.”
With FOIA requiring periodic dusting and, now with Obama’s bill, a late spring-cleaning to redirect it back to its true purpose, questions arise about its state counterpart. Does the RTKL have its own quirks?
The executive director of the Office of Pennsylvania Open Records, Erik Arneson, said the state’s law, for the most part was soundly authored, but he believes some improvements are needed.
As a positive, unlike its federal predecessor, Arneson said, the RTKL, authored by former state Sen. Dominic Pileggi, was written “in a way that was technologically-neutral.”
“For example, police body cameras weren’t a factor in 2008 and 2009, but were later listed as a record of the agency,” Arneson said,
If anything, Arneson concedes, the weaker areas of state law apply to state-owned and related universities such as Temple University and Penn State.
“(The law) needs to apply to the four state-related universities,” he said. “Information such as budgets and statistical data should be available online.”
Campus crime is also a gray area. Arneson said the RTKL should be extended to apply to all university police departments with arrest powers. Currently, he said, “The law applies to municipal and state police departments.”
Arneson also believes that commercial, non-news media businesses that file requests with agencies to gather consumer information solely for profit should pay.
He proposes as a solution, charging businesses “a reasonable amount or higher fee.”
“If businesses use it to make money off of RTKL requests, then agencies (should be able to) charge more money,” Arneson said.