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Editorial: Open records can’t be held hostage | TribLIVE.com
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Editorial: Open records can’t be held hostage

Tribune-Review
| Sunday, September 16, 2018 5:33 p.m
232122OpenRecordLaws

Irwin residents need a hostage negotiator.

The Westmoreland County borough is currently locked in a stand-off between the council and the fire department, and it seems like a no-win situation.

It all started when the fire department started transporting patients in nonemergency situations.

The borough said the department was using municipal money to fill the ambulance gas tank, and they owed $2,200 to pay it back.

If that’s what happened, the borough may well be right. The fire department should probably pay back what they owe.

But the department then asked for the municipality’s budgets from previous years. The borough said give us the $2,200, you get the budgets.

That’s not how this works.

The fire department didn’t ask for a council member’s personal financial records. They asked for something that is required to be open.

Every year, when the borough approves its budget, it has to do it tentatively. It has to make a spending plan for the coming year, and then it has to put it on display for everyone to look at, evaluate and question. Then they have to openly give final approval.

Every dollar of that budget is required, by law, to be accounted for publicly again when it is spent.

If a resident, an individual, an organization or an agency has a question, the records for those expenditures or the plans are supposed to be available for review.

There is a Right-to-Know process to get documentation a municipality or other government group has not openly provided, but that is a ridiculous hurdle for a document that has already been freely made public.

The Right-to-Know Law begins with the idea that all records are open. It would be hard to argue that something like a budget isn’t when state law has already separately required the information to be openly available.

The government unit is also not allowed to be arbitrary or punitive in its release of records. It can’t demand payment beyond the cost of providing the copies or postage, or in the case of more complicated records, the time for an employee to compile the information.

And they can only ask for payment up front if those costs are expected to top $100.

It seems unlikely that copies of a few years of previously compiled budget paperwork would be that complicated to produce, or that costly to provide. It also seems that $2,200 in unrelated funding would be contrary to the Right-to-Know Law, rather like demanding a resident pay his taxes before giving him paperwork to register to vote.

In a situation where maybe both sides aren’t entirely right, this money vs. records knife fight is just not helping anyone.

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