Our opinion: Embracing transparency
The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board should accept the defeat it was handed in Commonwealth Court last week, discard any thoughts of filing a costly appeal with the state Supreme Court and avoid any delay regarding full compliance with what the judges decided.
Any Pennsylvania resident who ever has lamented the board’s monopoly over liquor sales, product selections and pricing — and the monopolistic protections it has enjoyed traditionally as an agency of the state — probably is steadfast in believing that the liquor agency should not have a dictatorial right to conceal important information to which the public should be privy.
Release of information to the public about how many deactivated restaurant liquor licenses are available for auction in each of the state’s 67 counties was at the heart of last week’s court ruling.
The agency wrongly contends that the information in question is a “trade secret” exempt from disclosure because it is part of the agency’s internal deliberations.
However, it is much more, in a troubling way, than that. It is indicative of a sleazy attitude of secrecy that raises the logical question of what other information important to the public might be in some deep information catacomb beyond access by anyone else, including the elected state officials upon whom state residents depend.
There is no way that the PLCB can end up looking good by pursuing a Supreme Court ruling, even if it were to win at the high court level. PLCB officials already look bad by having sought the Commonwealth Court ruling, rather than casting off secrecy and opening the agency’s books about the deactivated licenses in question after the state Office of Open Records sided with release of the data in July 2019.
Credit year-long persistence by state Rep. Frank Burns, D-Cambria, for Tuesday’s open-records victory. The legislator’s pursuit of the licenses information has been underway since May 2019, and Burns even hired — and personally paid for — legal help to represent him in the government transparency case that impacts the commonwealth from border to border.
In reaction to Tuesday’s ruling, Burns pointed out that the court victory is a win for mom-and-pop restaurant owners who have been undercut by the liquor agency’s license auctions, which he believes have devalued licenses in rural areas like Cambria County.
The uncertainties swirling around the current “pandemic economy” are a further basis for more openness, not less, which the PLCB apparently is continuing to ignore.
In the Commonwealth Court’s 36-page opinion, Judge Christine Fizzano Cannon said, “We fail to discern how revealing raw data regarding the total number of licenses the board could potentially select for auction in each county provides insight into any policymaking, recommendations or other deliberative processes of the board.”
The court pointed out that the liquor agency undermined its own argument by admitting its press office had previously released license tallies for some counties.
Why the PLCB suddenly got so secretive and sensitive about license information when approached by Burns is a good question.
Act 39 of 2016 changed many of the liquor agency’s duties, but it didn’t give the agency expanded secrecy options. It is encouraging that the Commonwealth Court agreed.