Let the sun shine in

March 14, 2017
Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter Exterior of the Observer-Reporter building in Washington.

Thank heavens for Delaware, Michigan, South Dakota, Wyoming and Nevada!

Why’s that? Well, if it weren’t for these five other states, Pennsylvania would have come in dead last in a 2015 study by the Center for Public Integrity on transparency and accountability. Pennsylvania received an overall F grade. If it’s any comfort, Ohio scored a D-plus, and West Virginia and Maryland only mustered D’s. The No. 1 state, Alaska, didn’t exactly get a stellar grade either, managing only a feeble C.

Among the areas explored in the study were electoral oversight, internal auditing and public access to information. Pennsylvania has made some improvements on the latter front, thanks in part to the 2008 Right to Know Law, which, among other things, gave citizens an avenue to appeal the denial of an information request by establishing the Office of Open Records. It also shortened response times and set up a database for state contract information. It’s good, but we can do better.

The need for the public to have access to information and be allowed to see how its government works is the focus of Sunshine Week, which started Sunday and continues through Saturday. It’s spearheaded by John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Gridiron Club and Foundation, American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Reporters for the Committee for Freedom of the Press. It’s a bipartian effort that’s now in its 12th year, and should provide a rare point of agreement in a deeply divided country. Whether you are a Republican, a Democrat or a member of the Prohibition Party – yes, they are still out there – you should want government at all levels to be answerable to its constituents.

This year, Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association pointed out some ways the commonwealth can improve its sunshine laws. State Rep. Rick Saccone, the Elizabeth Republican who represents a portion of Washington County, has been championing a proposal that would require officials to record executive sessions. These behind-closed-doors discussions can be called for vague reasons, such as “personnel matters” or “legal issues,” and the public is left out in the cold about what is actually discussed. For all we know, they could be heatedly debating their March Madness brackets. The bill Saccone is sponsoring would allow courts to review the recordings of executive sessions if there is a legal challenge.

Another area lawmaker, state Rep. Jim Christiana, a Republican who represents parts of Washington and Beaver counties, sponsored legislation in the General Assembly’s last session requiring agendas be posted 24 hours in advance of public meetings.

Christiana argued sneaking items onto agendas at the last minute is a way to conceal controversial decisions from the media and the public. It should be noted that 19 states and the District of Columbia already have laws on the books requiring agendas to be published as part of public notices that appear in advance of meetings.

Who knows? If we make some progess on these fronts, and with issues like lobbying and civil service management, Pennsylvania might be able to work its way up to a D the next time the Center for Public Integrity conducts a study.

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