Warren County League of Women Voters celebrates Sunshine Week

It’s National Sunshine Week and it has nothing to do with the weather.

Warren County’s League of Women Voters — one of almost 100 entities nationwide, and the only LWV chapter — is formally participating in the event that is intended to celebrate and publicize the right of the people to have access to government meetings and public records.

The Pennsylvania Right to Know Law of 2008 and Sunshine Act of 1998 are the key pieces of legislation that guarantee Pennsylvanians access to their governments.

The Freedom of Information Act is the federal version of the state’s Right to Know Law.

The LWV held a public event Monday evening at Warren Municipal Building. Members, guests, and the public were invited to meet city officials including Open Records Officer Teena Leary, Police Chief Brandon Deppen, City Manager Nancy Freenock, Mayor Maurice Cashman, and Councilman Greg Fraser, listen to their thoughts on open government, and ask questions.

Teena Leary, the city’s open records officer, talked about the Right to Know (RTK) Law.

“The Right to Know Act is not a way for people to ask for information,” she said.

A requester could not, under the law, ask the open records officer what the city’s tax rate was in 1972, for example. However, “the ordinance that set that rate is a record” that could be requested, she said. “It has to be a record. It has to be specific.”

“They can’t say, ‘I want any and all letters sent to John Doe,'” Leary said.

If the request is appropriately specific and for an public record, the officer has five business days to produce the records. The officer may file an extension “if you have a bona fide reason,” she said. “Some are very routine. You can have some that become very cumbersome.”

The municipality may not charge for the time and research done by the officer. “We are allowed to charge for the copies,” Leary said. “That’s about it.”

Some requests are for records, but those records are not public. When requesters are told they have asked for something that “is not a public record, more often than not, those are related to police records,” Leary said.

“A lot of times when requests come in for open records, they are for the police department,” Chief Brandon Deppen said. “Notes and the report generated from that — they are part of an investigation and are not to be released.”

Police generate a public document when they file charges through a district magistrate.

Some people request copies of videos. Videos are open records, but, “if it has a victim, a witness, or a potential suspect, you can’t release it,” Deppen said. “That’s essentially every video” the department makes.

The decisions of the open records officer are not final. A requester who is denied may “appeal to the state Office of Open Records,” Leary said. And, if the OOR overturns the officer’s decision, the entity can appeal to the local court of common pleas.”

“We have done that twice,” Leary said. “We prevailed in both of those.”

Cashman talked about the Open Meetings Law.

“The Sunshine Act says that there’s a right of the public to be present at all meetings of a public agency,” he said. “The public is entitled to come address Warren City Council.”

There are executive sessions which are exceptions to the open meetings requirements. “This is where the city council and the mayor can meet where the public is excluded,” Cashman said.

The exceptions include: discussions of particular personnel; union negotiations strategies; considering real estate sale or lease; discussing litigation; and issues that are legally confidential.

“Always in executive sessions, you can discuss, but you can’t come to a decision,” Cashman said. “You can’t take the vote in executive session.”

The event included a tour of the newly-renovated city building.

“This is the second year that our local League of Women Voters has participated in Sunshine Week,” Jennifer Bliss said. The week coincides with National Freedom of Information Day and Founding Father James Madison’s birthday.