You can learn a lot using the state's Right-to-Know Law. But it won't get you answers to every question.
Don't bother using it to ask for information from an amusement park, newspaper, zoo, historical society, business or professional association. The law applies only to records from state and local government agencies, and you're wasting your time sending requests anywhere else.
The state Office of Open Records, which hears disputes about access to government records, recently denied several appeals from people who tried to use the law to get records from places that aren't subject to it.
One man appealed after Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom, the Philadelphia Daily News, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Zoo, PECO, the Pennsylvania Bar Association and the American Civil Liberties Union did not acknowledge the Right-to-Know requests he had sent them.
The man asked Dorney Park for "open records that exist of all the accidents on rides" since 2000. He asked the Daily News for "all records of all articles this newspaper produced or mentioned of 'Kathleen Kane.' "
He wanted "budget records and all expenses at the taxpayers expense" from the historical society; records of taxpayer funding for the gorilla exhibit from the zoo; "open electric records" of former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter from PECO; complaints about an attorney from the bar association; and complaints filed with the ACLU about police misconduct in Chester County.
I understand why someone would ask for that information. It could shed light on how tax dollars are being spent, hold public officials accountable and ensure public safety. And that's the purpose of the Right-to-Know Law, to make that type of data available.
Those requests were just misdirected. There's a good chance a lot of that information could be available if it were requested from a government agency.
The trick is to figure out which agency has oversight or a connection to what you're looking for. For example, if you want reports about the safety of rides at amusement parks, those rides are inspected by the Bureau of Ride & Measurement Standards at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.
If a government gave money to the historical society or zoo, records of that spending would be public from the government, not the recipient. Likewise, expenses incurred by a mayor would be available from the city.
Complaints of misconduct filed with a police department would be on file at the department, though they could be exempt because the Right-to-Know Law allows some personnel records and investigative records to be kept private.
A record documenting an employee's demotion or discharge is public, though details may be redacted.
The records of private companies working as government contractors to perform "governmental functions" are subject to the Right-to-Know Law. But they must be requested through the government agency.
The Office of Open Records recently denied appeals from people who asked for records directly from a company that provides medical services to jails and a company that provides phone services for inmates.
Records of their work might be available if it's considered a governmental function, but would have to be requested from the agency operating the jail.
Another point to remember is that the Right-to-Know Law provides access to government documents, not information. You can't just ask a question and expect an answer. You must determine what paper or electronic record or database would contain the information you want, and then request it. An agency is not required to create a document or database for you.
So, if you're looking for spending information, you'd ask for budgets, invoices and so on.
Before filing a Right-to-Know request, check an agency's website. Some agencies publish inspection reports, spending data, meeting agendas, minutes and other frequently requested information.
If you do use the law to obtain government records, you may be charged for copies of those records. Make sure to pay the bill because if you don't, future requests for documents can be denied.
A woman from Washington Township, Lehigh County, recently lost an appeal for PennDOT roadside maintenance and herbicide payment records because of that. According to the appeal ruling, PennDOT told her she could have the records if she paid $85 she owed for records she had received from previous requests. She appealed to the Office of Open Records, arguing she had paid those bills.
The office sided with PennDOT, saying she did not submit evidence to contradict the department's claim of the bills being unpaid. The office ruled the Right-to-Know Law allows a government agency to deny access to public records for unpaid fees.