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Can Right-To-Know laws be used to point of abuse?: Editorial

Posted 2/14/18

Americans have the right to access almost all the records maintained by our government.

The governmental bodies that maintain those records have the responsibility to redact certain parts of those …

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Can Right-To-Know laws be used to point of abuse?: Editorial

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Americans have the right to access almost all the records maintained by our government.

The governmental bodies that maintain those records have the responsibility to redact certain parts of those records, for a variety of legal, valid reasons. But that redaction process often can require the work of lawyers, and those legal fees can add up. It also can require the work of staff to access and sort the record requests.

So what happens when multiple requests are made of a small local government, requiring the input of lawyers to help sort it all out?

That scenario is playing out locally.

Londonderry Township has asked a Dauphin County Court judge to stop what the township claims is a campaign of harassment being waged against the township by a man over the enforcing of floodplain ordinances on islands in the Susquehanna River.

Glenn Harmon is prohibited from filing any more Right-To-Know requests with the township, until Dauphin County Court decides on the merits of a lawsuit that the township filed against Harmon on Jan. 31. He is prohibited from filing any more appeals of township decisions regarding his Right-To-Know requests with the state Office of Open Records, until the court decides on the merits of the lawsuit filed by the township.

If this all seems extreme, consider this: The township says Harmon’s Right-To-Know requests have cost them $85,000 in the four months from August through mid-December.

If Harmon is allowed to file his requests and appeals at the same rate throughout 2018, it will cost the township $250,000 — or over 12 percent of the township’s total operating revenue — and 3,300 employee working hours — just to address Harmon’s “abusive RTKL requests and subsequent appeals,” the township says in the lawsuit.

The township in the lawsuit contends that it was “forced” to hire a part-time employee just to assist with the handling of “the unrelenting volume” of Harmon’s request and appeals.

The township in the lawsuit says that since August 2017, Harmon has filed 106 Right-To-Know Law requests with the township, and 78 appeals with the state Office of Open Records.

Further, the township calls what Harmon is doing “retaliatory conduct in an effort to drain the township of its financial resources” and “a perversion of the RTKL.”

Phew.

This is a tough one, and we will admit, we don’t have an answer.

Harmon calls the $85,000 estimate for complying with his requests from August through mid-December “very high,” and labels as “ridiculous” the $250,000 estimate for 2018 if Harmon is allowed to continue.

In theory, Harmon has every right to make the requests. The number shouldn’t matter. A public document is a public document, and his requests need to be fulfilled.

But on the other hand, should one person or a group of people be able to paralyze a local government entity through a blizzard of such requests? Even if those requests are legitimate?

We are going to be very intrigued by what the courts decide, and it could set precedent for years to come.

We are hesitant to say that there should be some limits on the number of such requests that anyone can make in any given time frame. That would seem to be an unfair restriction on individual rights. However, what are the other possible outcomes that would both honor such requests without costing a fortune?

We can’t expect government to eat the cost of such requests. We don’t want a cap on the number of requests that can be made.

So the sticking points are big.

The free flow of information between government and residents isn’t free. This entire situation is an in-your-face reminder of that very fact.