Email communications among Council Members and the Borough Manager of Lewistown were required to be produced, pursuant to a recent decision from the Office of Open Records in the matter styled Maguire v. Lewistown Borough, OOR Docket No. AP 2020-0260 (April 20, 2020).

Basic Facts

The Final Determination of the OOR in this matter followed an appeal from the denial of a request to the Borough for emails between and among the Borough Manager and two Council Members for a sixty-one day period of time. Also requested, but denied in this appeal, was a document regarding potential job eliminations.

Legal Ruling and Analysis

The decision begins with the public policy animating the Right to Know Law which includes empowering citizens to obtain access to official government information to promote transparency and to allow scrutiny of the actions of public officials. See Bowling v. Office of Open Records, 990 A.2d 813, 824 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2010), aff’d 75 A.3d 453 (Pa. 2013). RTKL Section 708(a)(1) places the burden of proof on the public body to prove that the requested government record is exempt from public access.

A key issue in this matter was whether the request for emails satisfied the “sufficiently specific” requirement in Section 703. The Courts have established a three-part balancing test to determine if this requirement is satisfied. See Pa. Dept. of Educ. v. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 119 A.3d 1121 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2015). First, the “transaction or activity” must be identified. Second, the requested scope must identify a discrete group of documents (e.g., type or recipient). Third, the timeframe should identify a finite period of time for which the records are sought.

Applying those factors to the present facts, the OOR determined that the short timeframe in this matter “rescued” the lack of subject matter referenced in the request, similar to the facts in Easton Area Sch. Dist. v. Baxter,  35 A.3d 1259, 1265 (Pa.Commw. Ct. 2012).

A second part of the request was denied in this appellate decision because it requested documents relating to strategy or negotiations for labor relations or collective bargaining which are exempt under RTKL Section 708(b)(8)(i).

A footnote on the last page of the decision notes that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has suspended through April 30 deadlines related to court cases or judicial business. The OOR has a link on its website with commentary on how the shutdown due to the coronavirus and the Governor’s declaration of an emergency impacts requests under the RTKL and the duties of government agencies during this unprecedented crisis.