Pennsylvania FOIA procedures
Each state varies slightly in the procedures used to gain access to public documents. This article serves to describe specifically the steps used in Pennsylvania. To read the history and details of Pennsylvania’s sunshine laws please see Pennsylvania Right to Know Law
How to request public records in Pennsylvania
The law requires all public agencies to designate an official records custodian, who is required to manage all records requests. Requests should be directed to this custodian. However, the law does require other public officers to forward requests to the custodian, as opposed to ignoring them.
Purpose and use
Pennsylvania law does not require a statement of purpose, and further, explicitly prohibits the creation of a requirement of a statement of purpose. There is not restriction on the use of records, nor can records be denied based on intended use.
Who may request public records?
Any United States citizen may request public records in Pennsylvania. Definitions: ""Requester." A person that is a legal resident of the United States and requests a record pursuant to this act. The term includes an agency."
- See also: How much do public records cost?
In November 2008 Gov. Ed Rendell's office released a directive that allows states agencies to charge "a reasonable fee" for searching and retrieving documents. The directive also allows agencies to charge for redacting nonpublic information from copies of requested government documents.
The directive is controversial because the state's Office of Open Records--which was charged in 2008 with coming up with guidelines to govern how the state's new law would be implemented--says that fees should not be charged for retrieval or redaction.
The director of the OOR says the office is engaging in discussions with the Rendell administration about the new directive because the OOR believes that "When you have a fee structure that allows agencies to charge for the cost of labor, it opens the door to abuse."
In general, the fee structure proposed by Terry Mutchler of the OOR allows for a copying fee of $0.25 per page for executive, county, municipal and school district records. The judicial branch currently charges $1.00 per page for copies and the legislative branch charges $0.50 per page.
- See also: Request response times by state
Effective in 2009, "The time for response shall not exceed five business days from the date the written request is received by the open-records officer for an agency. If the agency fails to send the response within five business days of receipt of the written request for access, the written request for access shall be deemed denied."
The government agency may determine that:
- The requested records require some redaction.
- The records are stored in a remote location so that retrieval will take some time.
- Staffing limitations exist.
- The agency is uncertain as to whether it is required under the law to provide the records that have been requested and therefore wants to request a legal review prior to making a decision as to whether to fulfill the request.
- The requestor did not adequately comply with the policies regarding how to ask for records.
- The requestor did not pay the fees associated with the request.
- The "extent or nature of the request precludes a response within the required time period"
If the agency decides that one or more of those reasons for not providing the records within the 5-day window apply, the agency is required to provide the requestor with a letter saying why it is going to take more than 5 days. That letter must be provided within the 5 day window.
- Pennsylvania Statute 1308
- Pennsylvania Statute 301-304
- PA Right to Know (dead link) Section 102
- About Pennsylvania's residency requirement (dead link)
- Pennsylvania Patriot News, "Agencies to charge for access to records," November 29, 2008
- PA Record Copies Limited To $.25 A Page, Fulton County News, November 27, 2008
- Chapter 9, Agency Response: General Rule (dead link)
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