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Little headway on Right-to-Know law

Nothing came of legislation introduced in December 2011.

More than a year after an amendment was proposed in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives to the state’s Right-to-Know law, no change has been made.

State Sen. John Blake plans to formally introduce a new amendment to the law, one that repeals the special requirements for state-related institutions.

The senator’s Chief of Staff Luc Miron said the senator hopes to achieve “a balance of what information is disclosed.” Blake introduced the bill informally last fall.

In the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal in 2011, light was shed on the law when reporters and police said they were denied requests for a 1998 abuse complaint filed against Sandusky, a former Penn State coach, as well as information on Sandusky’s severance package from Penn State and emails exchanged between university officials.

However, Terry Mutchler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, said the debate over the law dates as far back as the 1980s.

“Because these institutions sit in a unique place, [between private and public funding]…there’s a long history to it. After the Jerry Sandusky scandal people went ballistic,” Mutchler said.

Mutchler said that on the subject of Penn State’s public record access, “I think the realistic view is that [Penn State] could’ve been the most pro-disclosure university in the world and it probably wouldn’t have stopped what happened.”

Current legislation classifies the four state-related institutions of Temple, Penn State, Lincoln University and the University of Pittsburgh apart from commonwealth agencies, providing them with their own requirements.

The four universities must, as of May 30 of every year, file a Form 990 or an equivalent, salaries of all officers and directors of the institution and the highest 25 salaries paid to employees of the institution that are not included as officers and directors. The universities must also keep a copy of such information with the university library and website for at least seven years.

Temple posts its Form 990, Form 990-T, director salaries and Top 25 salaries on the university’s “public information” page of its website. The proposed amendment, House Bill 311, rewrites the law only to include a state-related institution’s affiliates as part of the institution. However, under Blake’s bill, Senate Bill 1377, Temple would need to designate an open records officer to publish and handle requests for public records on the university’s behalf.

Mutchler held an open records officer training course at Penn State last year.

“They’re really going to need to put a structure in place,” Mutchler said. “Every university’s going to need to get a handle on what records they do have.”

With officers allowed up to five business days to respond to requests, Mutchler said a university would need “a full-time staff of eight to 10 people.”

All bodies would be still exempt from disclosing information under 30 conditions, such as records that if disclosed “would result in the loss of federal or state funds by an agency or the commonwealth,” employee records of “grievance material, including documents related to discrimination or sexual harassment,” or even “information regarding discipline, demotion or discharge contained in a personnel file.”

All bodies would be also exempt from disclosing “a record of an agency relating to or resulting in a criminal investigation, including: complaints of potential criminal conduct other than a private criminal complaint…a record that includes the identity of a confidential source or the identity of a suspect who has not been charged with an offense to whom confidentiality has been promised…a record that, if disclosed, would…reveal the institution, progress or result of a criminal investigation, except the filing of criminal charges.”

Temple also posts its student body profile, individual school and college tuition rates, annual crime reports by Campus Safety Services, school policies and Board of Trustees meeting minutes, the annual operating budget and state appropriations budget requests. A common data set of admission requirements, tuition rates and recent university-wide academic attendance rates can also be found on the site.

Crime reports are posted as per the Clery Act, a congressional statute requiring colleges and universities receiving federal aid to disclose their security policies, keep a public crime log, publish an annual crime report and provide timely warnings to students and campus employees about a crime posing an immediate or ongoing threat to students and campus employees, according to the Clery Center for Security on Campus.

Temple also participates in the Voluntary System of Accountability, a program designed to provide greater accountability for public higher education. VSA was initially funded by the Lumina Foundation, which approved a $250,000 grant to Temple in 2005.

Amelia Brust can be reached at abrust@temple.edu.

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