Steps forward: a handful of victories for open government in 2021 | Power and politics of the Palestinian Authority



AGENDA OF MEETINGS

Earlier this year, a bill requiring agendas for government meetings to be posted at least 24 hours in advance was passed unanimously by the House and Senate.

The new law requires all counties, municipalities and school boards to post their meeting agendas online and at their meeting venues.

So far, the associations of local authorities had mainly succeeded in lobbying against such legislation. But they were convinced that the provisions of the new legislation would not tie their hands or prevent the consideration of important issues.

“The Sunshine Act did not previously require a specific notice of the purpose of a meeting, and no state law required agencies to produce meeting agendas,” said Holly Lubart, vice-president. president of government affairs of the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association. “While some agencies produced agendas, many did not, and the lack of prior legal requirement made production entirely discretionary.”

The lack of information about the meetings “creates a barrier to access for residents with a vested interest and potentially valuable contribution on specific issues,” said Lubart.

Exceptions to the 24 hour requirement include health or property emergencies; whether the issues discussed are of little or no cost; and issues reported to the agency while the 24 hour clock is running and which require staff investigation. The law already allowed exceptions for executive sessions – private meetings – for subjects such as legal and personnel matters.

“I think the legislature realized that this bill was a simple and sensible way to bring major transparency to Pennsylvania,” said Melissa Melewsky, media legal counsel for the press association.

PIAA FINANCES

The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, which regulates high school athletics, is a “state-affiliated entity” and subject to the Right to Know Act, the Commonwealth court ruled last month.

The decision, written by Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer, upheld a decision by the Office of Open Records that the PIAA must provide full financial documents to the plaintiff, Simon Campbell of Bucks County, an anti-union activist and frequent plaintiff.

The PIAA then sued the open archives office, claiming it was not a state agency and was not subject to disclosure like other agencies.

“The PIAA’s control over high school athletics and the link between the funds it receives from its members and Commonwealth taxpayers is sufficient for its classification as a state affiliated entity for the purposes of the PIAA. RTKL is reasonable, ”the court said.

THE JUDICIAL RECORD OF A LEGISLATOR

While running for re-election in 2016, State Representative Leslie Acosta pleaded guilty to charges relating to her involvement in a check-cashing program that defrauded a mental health clinic in the city. one of the poorest neighborhoods in Philadelphia.

The public did not hear about the indictment and the lawmaker’s guilty plea until the Philadelphia Inquirer revealed the story six months later. This happened long after the deadline for submitting candidacies against Acosta and only two months before the primary. In the heavily Democratic city, elections are effectively won in the primary, The Inquirer wrote that federal prosecutors had not announced his plea, and Acosta said nothing to voters or his party leaders.

Acosta then won his race.

Under pressure from both parties, she resigned three days after the start of her term. She was sentenced to seven months in prison. Four years after his resignation, however, many documents related to his legal process have remained sealed. These records include notices of court, motions, transcripts and orders.

Acosta was cooperating with the federal government on another matter. A federal judge approved a sealing order on his plea.

George Parry, a former Philadelphia federal prosecutor, said he had never seen a successful elected official’s conviction like Acosta’s. “They should have an extremely important reason for keeping this under seal,” Parry told the Caucus.

On behalf of LNP Media Group, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Spotlight PA, lawyers for the Journalists’ Committee for Press Freedom and the Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic filed a motion to intervene and unseal 23 of the 40 documents in the proceedings. d’Acosta. They argued that the Pennsylvania Newspaper Coalition has a right of access to First Amendment and common law documents, and that the potential harm from unsealing court documents does not outweigh the public interest. to access it.

In April, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ordered that 21 of 23 documents be made public.

“The good news is that these files have been unsealed and Pennsylvania voters and taxpayers can finally learn more about how the government prosecuted the crimes of a corrupt politician,” Paula Knudsen Burke, Reporters Committee lawyer in Pennsylvania and former investigative reporter. for the Caucus, said.

“The bad news is that it took a team of lawyers and law students fighting on behalf of a consortium of newspapers to ensure that documents that should be public were in fact accessible to all.”

COMMUNICATIONS WITH SELLERS

The state’s Supreme Court ruled in April that communications between agencies and external vendors such as consultants and contractors can no longer be exempt from disclosure as internal documents that are part of the “deliberative process”.

These communications had been protected as “pre-sentence” and not subject to the right to know law, said Craig Staudenmaier, a First Amendment lawyer who was not involved in the case.

The decision fell Chester Water Authority v. Pennsylvania Department of Community Economic Development.

The Town of Chester is a city “in distress” Act 47 in financial recovery. He had requested documents from the state agency, which was helping with the recovery. The water authority was concerned about a possible privatization and requested files from the agency.

It was a “bright spot” for transparency in 2021, Staudenmaier said.

Melewsky said there is potential for wide application and publication of more recordings involving third parties.

The court’s ruling “narrows down the exception” of pre-sentence deliberations, she said.

MEDICAL CANNABIS SUPPLIERS

In July, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that those who fund medical marijuana and those who grow the product cannot redact the information themselves. The court said the responsibility lay with the state health ministry.

The Patriot-News / PennLive had been pushing for the records for four years.

Medical marijuana was legalized in a 2016 law. It became available two years later. The department issues identity cards to people with serious medical conditions, defined in law as ranging from cancer to glaucoma. Marijuana is provided to eligible people at dispensaries.

The state has also approved up to 25 producers / processors.

Joshua Bonn, an attorney representing the news agency, said the Supreme Court opinion “asserts that the public has a right to know who grows and distributes medical marijuana in Pennsylvania.”

“Public information includes the location of these entities, who funds these entities, and the safeguards in place to ensure the public receives safe drugs,” Bohn said. “The Department of Health may withhold legitimate trade secrets and information about facilities that may endanger public safety. “

In this case, however, the ministry “erred in allowing private entities to do their own redactions,” Bonn said. “The ruling is important because it requires public agencies to independently verify the validity of exemptions rather than blindly relying on private interests.”

Judge Debra Todd wrote: “We stress that a government agency cannot delegate its disclosure obligations or rely on the editorial staff of third parties. “

Bumsted is the Harrisburg bureau chief for The Caucus, the LNP Media Group publication covering Pennsylvania government and politics. Follow him on twitter @BEBumsted.



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