By Austin Nolen
Several weeks ago, one of Philadelphia’s city attorneys denied my request for data of the Bureau of Administrative Adjudication, which deals with parking ticket appeals. The attorney claimed the request was too burdensome and that I had used terminology that didn’t precisely reflect the records I had requested.
I reached out to that attorney to ask if we could waive the terminology issue, because I wanted to save the city time by appealing right away. The city attorney, however, angrily insisted that I file a new request. As a result, some of your tax dollars are currently being spent processing virtually the same request for a second time.
This is how the City of Philadelphia currently responds to our state’s Right to Know Law. The Law Department attorneys who process records requests are inexplicably located in the Economic Development and Investments Unit, rather than in sections of the Law Department that focus on policy issues, such as the Appeals and Legislation Unit.
It’s not that these attorneys aren’t skilled, but the very unit they are assigned to shows that the city treats its transparency obligations as equivalent to commercial litigation, when the spirit behind the two different types of law couldn’t be more different.
Jim Kenney recognized many of these problems during his final years on City Council and during his mayoral run. In 2013, the Councilman told the Daily News that Right to Know “has evolved from transparency to translucency… It’s like putting Vaseline on glasses. You can see the light, but you can’t see what you’re looking at.”
During the mayoral campaign, Kenney specifically promised to reform the city’s response to Right to Know, telling one Twitter user that “Records policy should be used as tool not a shield for gov[ernment]” and a journalist that, under his administration, “no magic words” would be needed.
Now that the Kenney administration has had some time to get its bearings, I wanted to find out exactly how the new mayor proposed to fix Right to Know in this city.
According to administration spokesman Michael Dunn, Mayor Kenney “plans to enhance training of city employees that the City’s Open Records policy is used not as a shield, but as a simple guide for constituents seeking information about how their tax dollars are spent.”
Dunn also said that the administration will begin making more city records available digitally, instead of making interested parties take a trip to City Hall to view them. According to Dunn, the process of digitizing records is already underway and the enhanced Right to Know training is expected to begin next month.
It remains to be seen just how much of an impact this new training will have, but the administration’s willingness to experiment is a step in the right direction. I’ll be following up with the process to report on just how much success this reform initiative achieves.
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1. In itself, the burden a request causes is not a sufficient reason to deny that request under PA law. See Department of Environmental Protection v. Legere, 50 A.3d 260, 2012 Pa. Commw. LEXIS 229 (Pa. Commw. 2012).