A step toward openness

A recent Commonwealth Court decision represents a step toward forcing more access to certain records involving state-related universities.

Three Commonwealth Court judges have ruled that the state’s Office of Open Records now has jurisdiction over records from Penn State University, the University of Pittsburgh, Temple University and Lincoln University.

The judges sided with Ryan Bagwell, a Penn State alumnus who sued the state Department of Education in seeking information on the Jerry Sandusky investigation.

Bagwell, who ran for the Board of Trustees and lost in the spring, sought letters, emails, reports and memos sent to then-Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis in association with his role as an ex-officio member of the Penn State Board of Trustees in June and July 2012, PA Independent reports.

The Department of Education denied Bagwell’s request, but he appealed it to the Open Records Office, then Commonwealth Court and eventually won his case.

The Open Records Office originally dismissed the appeal because it did not have jurisdiction to release Penn State records.

The portion of the Right-to-Know Law which Pennsylvania’s state-related schools operate under relates mainly to salaries and financial records of employees but not other communications.

According to PA Independent, the Commonwealth Court ultimately decided records received by the education secretary are part of his responsibilities in dealing with state-related institutions and the documents can be viewed.

Good for Bagwell: For all too long, these state-related schools, which receive millions of dollars in state taxes annually – in Penn State’s case hundreds of millions of dollars – have operated in secrecy when it’s suited them.

It’s part of the we’re-private-when-it’s-convenient-culture that led Penn State into its disgusting mess over the mishandling of Sandusky – a total failure of leadership from which the school will likely never fully recover.

Open-records lawyers will now decide whether to release the records on the merits of what’s requested, using Right-to-Know guidelines, PA Independent reports.

Terry Mutchler, executive director of the state’s Open Records Office, called the decision a victory and said that her office welcomes any opportunity to review a case predicated on more access.

Mutchler said she still expects the legislature to expand the Right-to-Know Law for state-related universities in some capacity.

It’s about time.