It's Sunshine Week, when engaged citizens and journalism's finest celebrate the open records laws that give us access to information about what government is up to. To do our part, WHYY hosted a forum on Tuesday night, "Open Records 101."
Bill Allison from the Sunlight Foundation shared tips on making requests for government records that will get answers. His slides are here:
Allison sat on a discussion panel with Terry Mutchler, head of the state Open Records Office for Pennsylvania; Marc Pfeiffer, who helped found New Jersey's open records system; and WHYY reporter Holly Otterbein.
Mutchler said the Corbett administration's performance was initially "terrible" but is getting better. In Pennsylvania, the latest incarnation of the state's Right to Know Law was passed in 2009. Mutchler said appeals to her office — the arbiter of denials — have grown by 89 percent. Among the highlights she brought to the discussion: A request for a copy of the state constitution was once denied.
Pfeiffer says part of the emphasis on open records comes from citizens' declining sense of control over their government. He says New Jersey's system is doing well, despite the criticism levelled by reporter Matt Katz in a piece for the Inquirer, which pointed out that the governor-appointed Open Records Council has sided overwhelmingly with the state.
WHYY's Otterbein shared tips of the journalism trade, including the advice to make requests formally as soon as possible rather than relying on a voluntary handover. She gave the Nutter administration props for releasing large data sets, including property tax reassessment data (that's part of the controversial AVI initiative, for the benefit of you Philadelphia locals). However, overall, she gave the administration a B-, saying records officers sometimes seem to make denials or requests for delays in bad faith.