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The idea embodied in Pennsylvania’s “Right to Know” law, not to mention its “Office of Open Records,” is, presumably, that citizens have a right to know what it is public institutions do and that public records should be “open.”
But behind what exactly those words mean, and who gets to define them are a myriad of battles between individuals and the public institutions from which they seek information.
In this occasional series, “Request Denied!” we’ve been looking at a few of the ways seemingly straightforward records have been denied by the city’s law department and other Philadelphia public agencies.
The state’s RTKL contains 30 exceptions, some vaguer and some more specific than others. On top of that, government agencies use a myriad of reasons to deny a request, one of the more vexing is that a request is “insufficiently specific.”
Requests, in other words, need to be explicit in nature– but those requesting the documents, often, can’t be specific until they’ve seen the kind of records they seek.
Such was the Catch-22 encountered by Robert Shusterman, a licensed architect and lawyer, who submitted a request to the City of Philadelphia asking for records from the Philadelphia Water Department and Philadelphia Streets Department relating to construction and maintenance activities on Hillcrest Avenue, on behalf of a group of Chestnut Hill neighbors concerned about possible pollution to the garden nearby or to the Wissahickon or Schuylkill rivers.
Shusterman’s request was denied by the City’s Law Department, which cited a laundry list of exceptions — including that his request was insufficiently specific and overly broad.
(The city also cited exemptions around “working papers,” “non-criminal investigations,” and “infrastructure security.”)
“They stonewalled me!” Shusterman said, referring to the city and its position relating to infrastructure security “which is hogwash because I do a lot of work involving construction plans. The Water Department and the Streets Department do provide a lot of these documents to the public and always have.”
But most frustrating perhaps, was the “specificity” catch: In his appeal to the Office of Open Records, Shusterman pointed out that his request, “is necessarily broad because he is not in a position to know what types of documents exist.”
The OOR denied Shusterman’s appeal, agreeing with the city’s position that he didn’t properly identify the records he was requesting.
The problem with this, as Shusterman — and, as a romp through the OOR’s database of final decision reveals, other would-be records requesters — sees it, is that while the letter of the law might allow such denials, the spirit of the law was to make records more, not less, accessible.
“I think there’s an abuse of process,” Shusterman says.
Kim de Bourbon, executive director of the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition, formed in 2006 as the state’s independent coalition for open government, says there’s nothing in the law requiring agencies to help out members of the public.
“You shouldn’t have to be a lawyer and file complicated papers to get the record that you want,” she argues.