a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Sunday, September 16, 2007

What's the big secret? Part 1

News reporters who are more than bodies in newsrooms being spoon-fed information by public officials can fill a book with stories about the troubles they have obtaining public records.
One of my favorites involves a Chartiers-Houston School District office clerk’s reaction in 1998 when I asked for the salaries of the principals at the public schools in her district in Washington County, Pa. She said she understood that the salaries were public information, except, in her opinion, they were to be kept private. My request was denied in what was then a test the print media launched into Pennsylvania's conflicting right-to-know law.
And then there was the case of police in Beaver who trailed me out of town while running a check on my driving history after I asked to see the police blotter, records that Pennsylvania’s courts have ruled should be readily available for inspection by residents. I will be writing more about that later.
My experiences were nothing when compared to what happened after Jim Parsons, an investigative reporter for WTAE-TV in Pittsburgh, sought to inspect the travel expenses of officials with the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, which provides grants and loans to offset the cost of a college education.
Parsons eventually got to see the documents after the station and other media owners spent $70,000 on legal bills to force PHEAA to shed some light on its books. But he was hit with a nearly $30,000 bill for the cost of making copies and the time it took PHEAA officials to black out what they didn’t want him to see in the receipts. He has not paid the bill.
PHEAA, meanwhile, incurred $400,000 in legal expenses.
The reporter uncovered abuses at the agency that left many people wondering how many kids could have been put through school had the agency been a little more responsible with its expense accounts.
Parsons told his story Saturday at a workshop on open government at the University of Pittsburgh. It was sponsored by the Pittsburgh chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition.
The groups are holding such discussions across Pennsylvania while lawmakers debate three amendments to the state’s Open Records law, which is among the worst in the nation. It doesn’t even presume that all documents that are paid for with tax dollars are worthy of public scrutiny, or provide an clear definition of those that can be kept secret.
The Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, which printed the postcard shown above, is collecting stories at a new blog from people who have had trouble getting a peek at records kept by their elected officials. Drop the association a note as it lobbies for stronger measures to let the sun shine on just how your tax money is being spent.

A related post.

UPDATE: PHEAA boss resigns

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