Burns seeks to streamline state open records law after legal battles

Bill would require requests be completed in timely manner

EBENSBURG, Dec. 2 – Inspired by his nearly two-year legal battle to extract records from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, state Rep. Frank Burns, D-Cambria, is seeking to ensure elected officials have prompt access to the information they need when making decisions for the public good.

“A few years ago, I made a simple request to the LCB that was stonewalled, turning into a two-year legal fight that the state Supreme Court ultimately ruled in my favor,” Burns said. “It was a completely unnecessary case of bureaucratic red tape, one which we’ve seen play out time and again. My bill will prevent government agencies from running out the clock on elected officials who routinely have to cast time-sensitive votes.”

Burns’ bill would require government entities to provide an elected official who files an open records request with a final determination in five days, eliminating the 30-day extension permitted under current law. If the agency denies the request, the elected official could appeal to the state Office of Open Records, which would also have five days to rule on the case, down from 30 days. To support the OOR in hitting this aggressive timeline, the bill would also create a dedicated appeals officer position within the office specifically to handle appeals from elected officials.

The bill would not change what information is considered public in Pennsylvania and would not affect individuals who use the law to access public documents.

In addition to his legal fight with the state LCB – which he funded out of pocket – Burns also pointed to a similar case involving Republican state Rep. Frank Ryan of Lebanon County, who filed an open records request last year seeking data related to the state’s COVID-19 mitigation plan.

“Here we had a state legislator seeking timely information which was critical to making public policy when the stakes could not have been higher, but his request was denied and strung-out,” Burns said. “My legislation would ensure that elected officials have the information they need – in the timeframe they have – to vote the way they feel best represents their constituents.”

Just this year, state Sen. Katie Muth, D-Montgomery/Chester/Berks, had to hire her own attorney to seek access to records at the PA Public School Employees’ Retirement System, that she had been denied access to despite serving on the system’s board of governors.

“Too often these agencies, whether through a sense of deception or not, look at information as something to be guarded from the public,” Burns said. “These agencies need to know that they ultimately answer to the public, and as the public’s representatives, that means that they are answerable to elected officials – not the other way around.”