In response to a lawsuit filed by lawyers for the Committee of Reporters on behalf of a local newspaper, a western Pennsylvania township agreed to train its employees in government obligations under the Public Records Act of the state, as well as paying a fine and covering the newspaper’s legal fees. .
The settlement between The Butler Eagle and the Township of Lancaster means officials tasked with ensuring local government transparency will now receive the necessary training on what documents must be made public under Pennsylvania’s Right to Know law. . It also sets an important example for other local governments trying to resolve public records disputes without engaging in timely and costly litigation.
“This deal is a big deal,” said Paula Knudsen Burke, an attorney with the Local Legal Initiative of the Committee of Reporters in Pennsylvania, who argued the case on behalf of the newspaper and one of its reporters. “There is no requirement for government employees to be trained on the Right to Know Act. Thus, the fact that the township is obligated to provide training to its employees is a huge nod to the importance of the law and its commitment to transparency in the future.
The lawsuit stemmed from a public records request that Alex Weidenhof, a reporter for The Butler Eagle and The Cranberry Eagle, submitted to Lancaster Township in 2020. The reporter specifically sought records relating to the former township manager, including including documents related to his departure from his post. Like Wiedenhof reported at the timea separation agreement reached between the township and director Ben Kramer stated that their relationship was “irreparably damaged” and that Kramer had been “terminated without cause”.
Although the township provided access to a separation agreement with the employee, it did not provide all of the documents requested under the right-to-know law.
After challenging the township’s decision to withhold certain records, the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records order the canton to provide some of the requested documents. But the commune failed to comply with the agency’s orders, prompting the newspaper to sue the commune last year.
During the course of the litigation, Lancaster Township officials turned over additional documents and provided sufficient reasons for not disclosing further documents. But the case was never the subject of a plea. On April 11, a Butler County Court of Common Pleas judge dismissed the case after reviewing the parties’ agreement, which included the township agreeing to pay the maximum penalty under the Right to Know Act. , as well as covering $5,000 in attorney fees for the newspaper. Most importantly, the township has agreed to provide public records training to all of its employees, including elected supervisors.
Burke said the training component of this agreement is important for several reasons.
First, she said, many local repositories of public records have never been trained in right-to-know law. This is not required by law, and many guards who may have undergone voluntary training around the time the law was passed ten years ago have since retired or changed jobs, leaving their replacements without the knowledge to properly respond to requests. .
Second, Burke said, this agreement “sends a message” that the right-to-know law is important. Those in charge of public records should know it. And they have to follow their homework.
The details of the training are still being worked out, although it is due to take place within six months. Burke, who plans to participate, said it would be substantial and could be open to government employees from other locations, including Harmony Borough, north of Pittsburgh.
Just days after Lancaster Township reached its agreement with The Butler Eagle, Harmony Borough officials reached their own agreement to resolve a separate dispute over the public records. As part of the settlement, they agreed to train their employees on the Right to Know Act.
The Committee of Rapporteurs regularly submits memoirs of friends of the court and his lawyers representing journalists and media outlets voluntarily in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, newsgathering rights of journalists, and access to public information. Stay informed of our work by subscription to our monthly newsletter and Follow us on twitter or instagram.