Our opinion: Opening closed doors

People want to know, but there is a tendency in government to be, shall we say “reluctant,” to satisfy that desire in some cases.

Last week the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records issued its annual report, the fifth such accounting of its activities over the previous 12 months. Since the office opened to oversee and act as an arbiter of the state’s Right To Know Law, its case load has more than doubled.

The office has a 15-member staff, seven of whom are attorneys who resolved a total of 2,478 appeals in 2013.

According to Terry Mutchler, the office’s executive director, the numbers and their extraordinary growth over five years is an indication that the public’s interest in keeping its government accountable is on the rise.

We would add that it may also be that it indicates governments aren’t much more accountable of their own volition than they were five years ago, since the Office of Open Records caseload would likely be far less if they were.

Although a significant number of their cases are filed by inmates – people with a lot of idle time – it is the general population of citizens and the media who have found a way to unlock doors that had previously been impenetrable either by design or by the sheer volume of records that had to be sorted to find answers.

Even with the efforts of the Office of Open Records and the law it oversees, is government in Pennsylvania, at every level, as open as it should be?

No.

Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act, the law that says the public’s business should be done in public, is toothless, and at times, worthless. With pitifully weak penalties for violations and court decisions that have watered down and muddied its requirements, the Sunshine Act is due for an upgrade.

But, like voting themselves a smaller legislature to save money and boost efficiency, lawmakers are loath to impose on themselves and others restrictions that hamper the ability to get business done behind closed doors, where things go very smoothly without the prying eyes of the people they represent.