Skip Navigation

“Sunshine Week” shines attention on government transparency

  • Scott LaMar

Airdate: March 13, 2023

This week is Sunshine Week in Pennsylvania – a time to highlight the importance of transparency in our governments.

On The Spark Monday, Terry Mutchler, Founding Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records in 2008 and now with a law firm in Philadelphia, where she is Chair of the firm’s Transparency and Public Data Practice, defined transparency,”Believe it or not, it’s not that obvious in some ways, because what you have, at least in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, is two extremes when people think of transparency. On one side, sometimes you have citizens and members of the media that think that every public official is a criminal and that unless you turn over every document your anti-open government, that’s not true. On the other side, you have public officials that often don’t like the public. And obviously we want to stay away from that. And also some of those officials feel like when a citizen asks for records that they own, sometimes what public officials here is, wait, you want to go through my checkbook? So I think we need to stay away from that. Transparency and government, in my view, is about a fair and equal application of the right to know law. The Freedom of Information Act for citizens to be able to obtain public records. Now, that doesn’t mean you’re going to get the mayor’s Social Security number. It does not mean you’re going to get like confidential, proprietary trade secret information. But when it comes to public records and budgets and and money and even emails those are public records. And transparency in government means that a government official takes very seriously their responsibility to provide public records and applies the law fairly and evenly to produce a public record timely and without playing games.”

Terry Mutchler

Pennsylvania enacted an open records law in 2008 that by most accounts worked to make government in the state more transparent. Mutchler talked about it,”The biggest change in the 2008 law prior was if you were a citizen asking for a record, the burden of proof on why it was a public record and why you should get it was on you all the time. And also, if you got denied a record, you appealed to the state agency, so that denied you. So it’s kind of like a fox in a hen house scenario, at least in perception. But the way that the right to know law changed that catapulted Pennsylvania very high up the charts on transparency in government is that the the the burden of proof changed to the agency. It’s the agency that must prove why the record is not available. The presumption is that the record is open under this law. And the third thing is it created an independent office of Open Records to basically call balls and call strikes and to (have) some binding authority behind that. And that caused a sea change in in the commonwealth. Pennsylvania used to be ranked 49th in the United States by the Freedom of Information Coalition. And in those early years, it moved up as high as 14 and one it was five. I think that was a little energetic, but, you know, it moved up. And Pennsylvania is considered a leader in it with this law and the Office of Open Records and Transparency in government.”


Support for WITF is provided by:

Become a WITF sponsor today »

Support for WITF is provided by:

Become a WITF sponsor today »

Up Next
The Spark

Pennsylvania counties say they need more funding for mental health services