The Pennsylvania Office of Open Records has posted Cambria County Judge Krumenacker’s Opinions and Orders in the matters listed below.  Click here for access:

  2017-0050

  2017-0534

  2017-0399

2017-0050 06/29/2017 DeBartola v. Cambria County District Attorney’s Office Request sought various records relating to drug expenditures and employee information.
2017-0534 06/22/2017 DeBartola v. Cambria County Request sought DUI account information and audit reports
2017-0399 04/25/2017 DeBartola v. Cambria County District Attorney’s Office Request sought various records related to asset forfeiture accounts.

“Four rulings spread across more than 100 total pages” were recently issued by Cambria County President Judge Norman A. Krumenacker III concerning RTKL requests made by Johnstown resident John DeBartola, according to a November 20, 2018 edition article in The Daily American/OurTown Johnstown.  An Office of Open Records Final Determinations database search shows 24 matters involving DeBartola in 2016 and 2017, and three listed as pending in Common Pleas Court as shown in this chart;

2017-0050 06/29/2017 DeBartola v. Cambria County District Attorney’s Office Request sought various records relating to drug expenditures and employee information.
2017-0534 06/22/2017 DeBartola v. Cambria County Request sought DUI account information and audit reports
2017-0399 04/25/2017 DeBartola v. Cambria County District Attorney’s Office Request sought various records related to asset forfeiture accounts.

The story by OUR TOWN reporter Bruce Siwy suggests that, “In several instances throughout the rulings, Krumenacker appeared to be at odds with the district attorney’s position” and Siwy quotes  requester DeBartola as characterizing the requested records as being about “secret slush funds” after DeBartola alleged that “some of the money has been spent on country club dinners and pricey laptop cases”.  With the opinions covering “more than 100 total pages”, it appears that Judge Krumenacker’s opinions contain a thorough discussion of the applicability of the RTK law to the variety of the District Attorneys and County’s records dealing with the District Attorney’s asset forfeiture records.  However, as of the date of this post, the Office of Open Records has not yet posted Judge Krumenacker’s opinions nor were the opinions available on Lexis.

A leading appellate case on these types of requests made of Pennsylvania District Attorneys offices is Stacy Parks Miller, District Atty. v. County of Centre, et al., 98 MAP 2016, November 22, 2017, with a Concurring Opinion by Justice Donahue.

 

 

In August 2018, Berks County Common Pleas Judge James M. Lillis ordered the City of Reading to pay $12,071.75 in legal fees to a requester and in October 2018, Commonwealth Court Judge Simpson ordered Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to pay $118,458.37 in legal fees to a  requester.  On November 26, 2018, the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records issued one of its periodic email topic alerts reporting on and linking to these two Court decisions.  The alert entitled “Agencies Ordered to Pay Legal Fees” can be found here

The Office of Open Records hosts a webpage where it has collected Court decisions on Enforcing a Final Determinations

The Commonwealth Court recently required the disclosure, pursuant to the RTK Law, of the identity of the members of a panel reviewing applications for permits to grow, process and dispense medical marijuana in Pennsylvania, in the matter of  Penna. Dept. of Health v. McKelvey, Comm. Ct., No. 1372 C.D. 2017 (Sept. 27, 2018).

Procedural History:

The Office of Open Records (OOR) rejected the argument of the Pennsylvania Department of Health that the requested records could be withheld based on a regulation under 28 Pa. Code § 1141.35(c), which at the relevant time provided that the applicant of a permit may not obtain the names of persons reviewing the application for dispensing medical marijuana.  That regulation has since been amended, but the amendment was not applicable to the instant decision.  On appeal, a reporter for PennLive was granted his request that the Department of Health provide, within 30 days, information regarding the identity of the panel members reviewing the relevant applications.

Noteworthy Principles Announced in the Decision:

(1) Purpose of RTK Law:

In Pennsylvania Department of Health v. McKelvey, the court reiterated the purpose of the Right to Know Law as allowing citizens to “scrutinize government activity and increase transparency.”  See Slip. op. at 5 (citing SWV Yankees LLC v. Wintermantel, 45 A. 3d 1029, 1034, 1050 (Pa. 2010) (stating that the RTKL is “remedial legislation designed to promote access to official government information in order to prohibit secrets, scrutinize the actions of public officials, and make public officials accountable for their actions.”) (citations omitted)).

(2) Exceptions to Presumption:

The court also recited the major exceptions to the presumption that records in possession of a state agency are public.  See Section 305(a) of the RTKL, 65 P.S. § 67, 305(a).  Those presumptions do not apply to information if:  “(1) the record is exempt under Section 708 (of the RTKL); (2) the record is protected by a privilege; or (3) the record is exempt from disclosure under any other Federal or State Law or regulation . . . .”  See Slip op. at 6.

The court explained that those exemptions from disclosure must be narrowly construed due to the remedial nature of the RTKL and an agency bears the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that a record is exempt from disclosure under one of the enumerated exemptions.

The Department argued that under Section 708(b)(1)(ii) of the RTKL, 65 P.S. § 67.708(b)(1)(ii), its regulation at 28 Pa. Code § 1141.35(c) prohibits the disclosure of the names relating to persons reviewing applications.

Court’s Reasoning:

The court’s extensive reasoning included the acknowledgment that the Department failed to establish that the person requesting the information was an applicant, and that the plain language of the regulation the Department relied on does not restrict a non-applicant from obtaining the information.  The court also explained that the interpretation of the Department was inconsistent with the plain language of the regulation, and was therefore rejected.  See pages 8 and 9.

The court also described the elements of the “personal security” exception to disclosure and why it does not apply here.  The personal security exemption from disclosure under the RTKL requires an agency to demonstrate: “(1) a reasonable likelihood of (2) substantial and demonstrable risk to a person’s security.”  See page 10 (citing 65 P.S. § 67.708(b)(1)(ii) and Governor’s Office of Admin. v. Purcell, 35 A.3d 811, 820 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2011).

Conclusion:

The court concluded by reasoning that a mere affidavit stating that a disclosure “may” expose a person, such as the member of a review panel, to a “plethora” of issues is conjecture and “simply too speculative to justify the exemption under the personal security provision of the RTKL.”

Moreover, the court added that the standard to establish an exemption under that provision is that disclosure is “reasonably likely” to result in a substantial and demonstrable risk of physical harm to the personal security of the individual.  See page 12.  That such harm “may” result does not suffice.