Opinion: Commonwealth Court issues two positive rulings in Right to Know cases

OPINION

By Melissa Melewsky, Media Law Counsel
Pennsylvania Newspaper Association

In County of York v. OOR and Ted Czech, the Commonwealth Court reversed the decision of the York County Court of Common Pleas by finding that 911 times response logs are required to contain destination address or cross street information.

Ted Czech, a reporter with the York Daily Record, requested access to 911 time response logs from the county 911 center. The county provided the logs but denied access to the destination addresses or cross streets. The county argued that the definition of 911 time response log was never intended to include address or cross street information and cited to selective portions of the legislative record as well as an interpretation from the PA Nation Emergency Number Association (PA NENA). The Office of Open Records granted access to address or cross street information on the basis that without it, the logs do not provide accountability for 911 response time and the PA NENA definition was never a part of the legislative debate. The trial court reversed and the newspaper appealed.

The Commonwealth Court agreed with the Office of Open Records finding the logs would provide little accountability without a geographic location. In making this determination, the court held that the PA NENA definition was not evidence. Likewise, the court conducted a thorough review of the complete legislative history and held the county’s reliance on a selective quotation of the legislative record was misplaced.

What does this mean for you? Emergency dispatch agencies are required to provide access to 911 time response logs that include destination address or the nearest cross street information, whichever the agency maintains. This is a significant, positive ruling for public access, and we congratulate Niles Benn, Terry Barna and the York Daily Record.

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In addition, in Allegheny County Dept. of Administrative Services v. A Second Chance, Inc. v. James Parsons and WTAE-TV and Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, the Commonwealth Court remanded to the trial court a case dealing with access to third party contactor employees’ names, dates of birth and hire dates. The Office of Open Records and the Allegheny Court of Common Pleas granted access to the requested records.

The Commonwealth Court held that the requested information was not a public record under section 102 of the RTKL but was a public record for purposes of section 506(d) of the law. Section 506(d) provides access to public records in the possession of third party contractors performing a government function when the records directly relate to the government function being performed. The court remanded to the trial court for a determination on whether the information “directly relates” to the government function being performed. The court also remanded for reconsideration of whether the records are exempt under the personal security exemption, 708(b)(1)(ii), which exempts records “reasonably likely to result in substantial and demonstrable risk of physical harm to or the personal security of an individual.”

What does this mean for you? Records in the possession of the third party contractors are public when the records directly relate to the government function being performed. The fact that the agency does not possess the records does not preclude access and agencies will be required to facilitate access in accordance with the RTKL.

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Pennsylvania Newspaper Association attorneys provide member newspapers with advice on government access issues.