In spite of publicity in recent years about state agencies being made more transparent, there remain plenty of road blocks to acquiring information which seemingly should be public. Such a situation faced Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania-based author and social issues journalist Walter M. Brasch earlier this year.
“I was needing information for a book I was working on about fracking in the state,” he said by phone Monday.
At issue was Act 13, signed into law in February. It established an “impact fee” on each “unconventional” well drilled to produce natural gas from Marcellus Shale, much of which lies more than a mile below ground. The process has gained considerable objection for its use of “fracking” – injection under high pressure of millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into the well to shatter the deep shale and release the gas.
The impact fees allegedly primarily benefit townships where the process of producing natural gas had increased expenses for local governments. Also, the new law established some drill site setbacks from schools and homes.
And it removed authority for townships to zone for drilling. Historically, municipalities in Pennsylvania have been required to provide place within their borders for every legal land use, but the legislature had succumbed to pressure from the fracking industry – which claimed having to deal with various municipal zoning regulations was too onerous a requirement. Under Act 13, state requirements superseded townships’ wishes.
Several municipalities sued the state and in July a Commonwealth Court judge ruled the zoning ban violated the state constitution.
Enter Walter Brasch, with a book to write and a need for copies of correspondence between a legislatively established lobbying association – Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors – and its member townships.
The Pennsylvania Right To Know Law requires agencies to which it applies to respond within five days to anyone requesting information. The agency must reveal whether it possesses the requested documents, and either produce them or explain why it is not required to do so. There are some built-in exceptions; contract negotiations, for instance, may be kept confidential at least until they are completed.
Sometimes there is little resistance, and documents are released within the five-day period. Sometimes the path is more rock-strewn. PSATS – comprising elected and appointed officials from 1,455 townships, whose memberships are approved and paid with tax dollars – refused Brasch’s request, claiming itself to be a private organization, and therefore not covered by the state’s Sunshine Law..
Brasch appealed to the state Office of Open Records, charged by the state with deciding whether the state’s Right To Know Law applies to various requests for information. When the OOR ruled last month the association – established by the legislature, its membership comprising township officials and a significant part of its budget derived from tax dollars – was covered under the Right To Know Law, the organization filed suit in county court.
“That forced me to try to get a lawyer and funding,” Brasch said.
Other agencies likely are watching the case with considerable interest. Several serve similar purposes for their members as PSATS does for townships – including County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania League of Cities and Municipalities, Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs and the Pennsylvania School Boards Association – have so far enjoyed real or imagined immunity from citizen scrutiny. As Brash commented, “Any large organization like that can outlast a private individual going against them.”
The Society of Professional Journalists, of which Brasch is a member, has offered $2,500 to help fund the effort. The township supervisors association has vowed to fight all the way to the state supreme court.
Brasch has vowed to outlast the association.
Walter Brasch is a contributing writer for RockTheCapital.
Photo by wcn247
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