House Appropriations Committee Testimony

Earlier this afternoon, I testified in front of the House Appropriations Committee regarding the Office of Open Records’ budget request for Fiscal Year 2015-16. Here’s the full text of my opening comments.

House Appropriations Committee
The Honorable William F. Adolph, Jr., Chair
February 22, 2016

Testimony of Erik Arneson
Executive Director, Office of Open Records
www.openrecords.pa.gov

Thank you, Chairman Adolph, Chairman Markosek, and members of the House Appropriations Committee. Good afternoon. It’s an honor to appear before this committee as Executive Director of the Office of Open Records. Chairman Adolph, on a personal note, I’m particularly pleased to have an opportunity to appear in front of you.

I have just a few comments, and then I’ll be very happy to answer any questions.

As I sit before you today, the Office of Open Records has decided nearly 14,000 appeals under the Right-to-Know Law. Last year, the OOR received a record number of appeals – 2,926. We have 10 attorneys who handle appeals. Do the math, and that’s an incredible caseload – nearly 300 appeals per attorney last year. And the OOR only has 30 days to decide each appeal, unless the requester grants us more time.

Needless to say, I’m tremendously proud of the work done by my staff.

Deciding appeals is the Office of Open Records’ primary responsibility, but we’re also required to provide training on the Right-to-Know Law and the Sunshine Act. Last year, we hosted or participated in 54 training courses across the state, including in Allentown, Bedford, Butler, Chadds Ford, Doylestown, Erie, Pittsburgh, Reading, West Chester, and many other locations.

The Office of Open Records also receives Right-to-Know requests, which we are required to respond to – just like any other agency. Last year, we received 888 requests for records. Most of those were misdirected – the requester wanted records held by another agency. But we always take the time to point requesters to the agency most likely to hold the records. More than 100 of those requests were for OOR records. We also received and responded to thousands of phone calls and emails from agencies and requesters with questions about the Right-to-Know Law and the Sunshine Act.

The Office of Open Records also follows cases when our Final Determinations are appealed, either to Commonwealth Court for state agencies, or to county courts for local agencies. At any given time, several dozen appeals are pending. We’re often called on to participate in those cases, or at least provide certified copies of our record to the court.

I’m pleased to report that despite that remarkable workload, our small office managed to do much more in 2015. We completely revamped our website to make it more useful to requesters and agencies alike. We published a comprehensive guide for Agency Open Records Officers. We started a blog, a podcast, and two Twitter accounts. We worked with legislators of both parties, from both chambers, on transparency-related legislation. We issued Advisory Opinions. We’re in the process of developing regulations.

And we put a special emphasis on the Office of Open Records’ mediation program, which I would like to expand. Mediation is a great way to resolve disputes under the Right-to-Know Law in a manner that keeps everyone out of court.

Looking ahead, 2016 will be an exciting year.

I expect another heavy caseload, and I expect that the complexity of cases in front of the Office of Open Records will continue to increase. Agencies and requesters are both far more sophisticated today than they were in 2009 when the OOR first opened. We now have a full body of case law around the Right-to-Know Law. All of that means that the appeals the Office of Open Records receives today tend to involve more nuanced – and, thus, harder to decide – issues.

I expect we will see more cases involving in camera review of records by the OOR. That’s a time-consuming process due to the volume of records involved, but in many cases it’s the best way to ensure that the right decision is made on whether or not a document is public.

I expect we will see more cases in which hearings are necessary to fully develop the record. The Office of Open Records has held fewer than a dozen hearings to date, including one earlier this month in Pittsburgh, but all indications are that more hearings will be needed in 2016.

I very much hope to see the Right-to-Know Law amended this year. We should resolve issues related to commercial requests and inmate requests, just to name a few. Once those amendments are enacted, the OOR will finish the regulatory process.

I expect that the number of successful mediations will grow significantly. Currently, we have nearly two dozen cases in various stages of mediation.

Finally, I expect the Office of Open Records to conduct even more training sessions. We’re available for local agencies, state agencies, requester groups – really, anyone at all. As new public officials are elected across the state, as agencies hire new staff members, and as the Right-to-Know Law continues to mature with case law and, hopefully, legislative amendments, there will always be a need to provide training. We will continue to provide in-person training – and in 2016, I expect that we will also offer more training resources online.

All of those things, of course, take time and personnel.

I’m very grateful to the General Assembly and Governor Wolf for providing sufficient funding for the Office of Open Records in the current Fiscal Year. Thank you for that.

I’m also grateful to Governor Wolf for proposing a Fiscal Year 16-17 budget for the Office of Open Records that will allow us to carry out all of our statutorily mandated duties in an effective and efficient manner.

Chairman Adolph, Chairman Markosek, and members of the Committee, thank you again for the opportunity to appear before you today. I’ll be happy to answer any questions.

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