Government Opinion

Secrecy Too Often the Norm in Pa. State and Local Government: Op-Ed

Some state and local government officials in Pennsylvania find every reason to delay or deny access to public records, then use taxpayer dollars to fight the public in court. Spotlight PA is fighting back.

Est. Read Time: 3 mins

By Christopher Baxter | Spotlight PA

Our state and local governments exist to serve our communities. We pay our taxes each year, and in return, we the taxpayers have a right to know what our government is doing, how it’s spending our money and whether we’re getting the services we deserve.

But there are fewer and fewer journalists on the front lines, keeping the government honest–and when officials don’t face questions or requests for public records on a regular basis, they increasingly lean toward the side of secrecy over transparency.

Making matters worse, state and local governments have vastly more resources than members of the public, allowing them to fight requests for information in court (using taxpayer dollars!) knowing full well that most requesters can’t afford to fight back.

We know all too well what can happen when governments are left to their own devices. And that’s why Spotlight PA and many of our partner newsrooms are forging creative solutions to shift the balance of power back in favor of you, the taxpayer.

But we need your support to keep up the fight.

Spotlight PA and its more than 90 partner newsrooms in Pennsylvania are finding creative new ways to combat state and local government secrecy. (Credit: KENT M. WILHELM / For Spotlight PA)

This week is Sunshine Week, a nationwide effort each year to call attention to the importance of government transparency and access to public records. Those are two principles that are core to the mission of Spotlight PA, the statewide newsroom I lead.

If you’re not familiar with our work, Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom covering the state Capitol in Harrisburg and urgent statewide issues. We share all of our journalism at no cost with more than 90 news outlets across the state.

And we work to bring our partners together to fight for transparency.

Here are just a few of our victories during the past year:

  1. In July, Spotlight PA–with the Centre Daily Times and WJAC-TV–successfully petitioned the Centre County Court of Common Pleas to unseal records related to a sex extortion case that Penn State University lawyers had sought to keep hidden from the public.
  2. In August, the state Commonwealth Court ruled in favor of Spotlight PA and against the state Health Department, which sued us seeking to block access to anonymized data about how many people use medical marijuana for each of Pennsylvania’s qualifying conditions.
  3. In October, Spotlight PA–alongside The York Dispatch, LNP Media Group and WITF Public Media in an effort led by the York Daily Record–successfully reached an agreement with the York County Clerk of Courts requiring better access to criminal court records after the news organizations sued alleging numerous legal violations.

In all three of those cases, and many more across the state last year, the newsrooms were represented at no cost by Paula Knudsen Burke, a Pennsylvania-based attorney with Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The committee in 2020 launched a new Local Legal Initiative to provide wider legal support to journalists.

“It’s always concerning when public officials and agencies trend more toward secrecy than transparency, but especially so in the courts, where we’ve seen and helped journalists push back against a troubling erosion of access to even basic information,” Burke said in an interview.

Each and every day, Spotlight PA reporters across the state are fighting in big and little ways to track your tax dollars and understand what our government is doing. How do we have the time and resources to do such important work?

That’s thanks to you.

Our journalism and the future of Spotlight PA depend on your support. Make a tax-deductible gift of any amount at spotlightpa.org/donate, and as a special bonus, all contributions will be DOUBLED thanks to a matching gift from The Benter Foundation in Pittsburgh, which is committed to ensuring an honest and ethical government.

I hope I can count on you to help Spotlight PA continue to fight for government transparency, hand-in-hand with our newsroom partners. Please consider making a gift now at spotlightpa.org/donate. If you’d like to donate by check, please send it to: Spotlight PA, 228 Walnut St., #11728, Harrisburg, PA 17108-1728.

Christopher Baxter is the executive director and editor-in-chief of Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom based in Harrisburg. Email him at cb*****@sp*********.org. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

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