Sunshine Week project demonstrates differences in public access to documents

March 12, 2016
Dolly, a 9-year-old goldendoodle, sits patiently next to her owner, Carol Kraft, secretary for Franklin Township, Greene County. Kraft has seen the shift from low-tech to high-tech in her 27 years in the office. - Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter Order a Print

Peters Township rarely receives an open records request for public documents because they can all be found on the municipality’s website.

Making that information readily available via cellphones, tablets and computers also has greatly reduced the number of calls to the township offices from people seeking information about the business Peters conducts, said Michael A. Silvestri, township manager.

“We try to go out of our way to put the whole township dockets online so people can see exactly what the board has,” Silvestri said Wednesday after the Observer-Reporter wrapped up a project that tested the transparency of local municipalities to mark Sunshine Week, which begins today.

“Anything to make a record more accessible, it certainly is commendable,” added Tom Northrop, publisher of the Observer-Reporter.

The editors at Observer-Reporter in Washington handpicked six municipalities in Washington and Greene counties to see how easy it was to obtain copies of meeting agendas and minutes as part of a Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association project, and some of them received poor grades. Selected were the two cities in Washington County, and the two largest municipalities in Washington and Greene counties.

Peters and North Strabane Township in Washington County scored at the top of the rankings for having websites that are easy to navigate and find links to agendas and minutes.

The newspaper employee who carried out the project used a toolkit provided by PNA, and it required him to grade the municipalities using a checklist. The municipalities were graded based on whether the minutes and agendas are available online, whether someone promptly returned calls and whether the minutes included the date, time and location of the meeting and the names of residents who commented at the meeting. The questions regarding the agendas mostly followed the same script. Included was a question as to whether a meeting outline was more than a “skeleton agenda,” one that doesn’t include a brief description of the action items.

North Strabane manager Frank Siffrinn said his township strives to have open communication with its residents and to ensure transparency at every level of government.

“Transparency at all levels of government is critical to the democratic process,” Siffrinn said. “It provides for an informed and educated public and media which, in return, facilitates and promotes good governance.”

While the newspaper obtained the minutes from Waynesburg Borough in Greene County within five days, the borough received a failing grade under the toolkit guidelines because those documents are not online and the call or email to the office was not returned within one to two days. The minutes also did not include the time and location of the council meeting. The agenda was not received from Waynesburg.

Waynesburg borough manager Mike Simms said his office does not save agendas after the minutes are approved because the minutes become the public record of the meeting. He said the borough employs a two-member office staff, that he’s never received any other open records requests for minutes in the 2 1/2 years he has worked for the borough.

Plans are underway to digitize and post all of Waynesburg’s records online, Simms said.

“We’re trying to catch up to the 20th century and then move into the 21st century,” he said.

Monongahela in Washington County also failed the test because the newspaper was told by a city employee that copies of records are not made and because the minutes were not provided within five days. City Council also rarely follows an agenda at its meetings. The city was commended by editors because it does post audio of its meetings online.

Monongahela Mayor Bob Kepics said he was unaware that there were problems in obtaining records from City Hall.

“We’re going to work on it,” Kepics said.

Franklin Township in Greene also received a failing grade because for issues such as the information isn’t on a website and there isn’t a time for public comment on the agenda.

Franklin officials in December launched a website that they plan to use to distribute meeting minutes, agendas, township maps and ordinances to the public.

Carol Kraft, the township secretary for 27 years, said she has watched as technology has changed over her tenure and become more user-friendly for both municipal workers and residents.

“When I first came here, nothing was computerized,” Kraft said. “We did everything manually.”

She said it’s rare that anyone from the public attends the township meetings, let alone offers public comment at them.

Meanwhile, the city of Washington scored 100 percent on the test to get council meeting minutes, which are online. The city failed the test on the agenda request because the newspaper employee was required to visit City Hall to get the document and the clerk thought she had to get the mayor’s permission to make a copy. The agenda also did not include a time for public comment before council acts on the business before it.

Washington Mayor Scott Putnam, who took office in January, said the city’s clerk resigned in December and that it’s going to take time for the new clerk to reorganize the office.

“As far as our meetings, we always open them up to public comment,” Putnam said.

He said it should be easy to attach the agendas to the city’s website.

“I’ll definitely look into that,” Putnam said.

Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel at the PNA, said the purpose of the Sunshine Week transparency test was not to be critical of local governments, but to bring problems to light and give them an opportunity to correct them.

“This is an opportunity for some of the municipalities to make adjustments to their policies and procedures,” Melewsky said.

Staff writers Mike Jones and Luke Campbell contributed to this story.

Scott Beveridge is a North Charleroi native who has lived most of his life in nearby Rostraver Township. He is a general assignments reporter focusing on investigative journalism and writing stories about the mid-Mon Valley. He has a bachelor's degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a master's from Duquesne University. Scott spent three weeks in Vietnam in 2004 as a foreign correspondent under an International Center for Journalists fellowship.

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