Open-records law soft on Pitt

By Pitt News Staff

Even though Pennsylvania’s new-and-improved Right to Know Law sheds more light on more… Even though Pennsylvania’s new-and-improved Right to Know Law sheds more light on more government information than ever before, Pitt students who want to know how the University spends its tuition dollars might be disappointed at the law’s treatment of Pitt and its fellow state-related universities.

Pitt, which receives about 10 percent of its total yearly budget from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, isn’t required to provide the public with much information about its operations and spending – even under the new law.

The law, signed by Gov. Ed Rendell last month, is a massive overhaul of the state’s public records system but does little to compel Pitt and the state’s three other state-related universities to account for how they do business.

Under the law, state-related universities are only required to produce an annual report containing a list of the top 25 highest paid employees at the university, the names and salaries of all university officers and trustees and all the information listed in its latest IRS form 990 federal tax-exempt report.

The 990 report includes a breakdown of the institution’s operating costs in broad categories as well as lists of the top five highest paid independent contractors for professional and nonprofessional services. It also lists the names and salaries of all university officers and trustees and the top five highest paid employees.

This form is already a public record under federal law.

The new Pennsylvania law only expands the current requirements to include another dozen or so names and salaries of top employees.

In other public realms, the rules are drastically different from what they were under the old law.

Until now, citizens who wanted access to documents related to government activity had to prove that the items they wanted should be public.

The definitions of what might constitute a public record were strict and limiting, and the final decision always fell to the agency that held the records in question.

The new law, which takes effect in July, presumes the opposite – that all government documents are public records.

It also puts the burden on government agencies to prove that something is not a public record according to exceptions outlined in the law.

For example, government agencies aren’t required to hand over documents that, if released, could jeopardize homeland security or that contain personal information like social security numbers.

The law also creates a state-level executive department responsible for reviewing and processing records requests.

Those who lobbied for the law’s passage are generally pleased with the outcome.

The Pennsylvania Newspaper Association argued fervently for open-records reform.

“We had a set of broad goals that we considered really crucial to overhauling the current law, we feel that it does meet those current goals,” said Deborah Musselman, director of government affairs for the PNA. “You used to have to prove that the record fell within the narrow definitions. We felt that it was crucial to reverse that presumption. That’s really the core of it.”

But Barry Kauffman, of the non-profit political advocacy organization Common Cause Pennsylvania, said that even though the new law is a vast improvement, it does have certain weaknesses.

“Generally speaking, this law is a major advance for open records, however, our main concerns are with the enforcement of the law,” he said. “We’ve created some pretty sweeping rights for the citizens of Pennsylvania, but if they can’t be enforced, it’s not a reform.”

Kauffman said he’s worried because the governor controls the office created by the law to deal with open-records requests.

Even though the official who oversees the records department will serve a six-year term that overlaps with the governor’s term, the office could still feel pressure from the governor to operate in a certain way. Common Cause would like to have seen the open-records office organized as part of the State Ethics Commission.

Regardless, Kauffman said, the new law will most certainly provide Pennsylvanians with more documentation of how their tax dollars are being spent than ever before.

If, for example, a keen citizen wants to know how much his local government is paying construction contractors for their services, he can find out by requesting the records.

But that same citizen is out of luck if he asks for details about construction costs from Pitt, Penn State, Temple or Lincoln University – the commonwealth’s four state-related institutions of higher learning.

Pitt and the other state-related universities “are excluded from almost everything,” Kauffman said. “As far as Pitt goes, any reforms under the new law are minimal.”

Pennsylvania state Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, who co-sponsored the law, said that state-related universities don’t warrant the same level of records scrutiny because they don’t get as much taxpayer money.

“State agencies and local governments are using 100 percent tax-payer dollars,” Costa explained. “That’s not the case at these universities. We need to recognize that the amount of state dollars going into these organizations pales in comparison to other institutions that are subject to the open-records laws.”

Kauffman thinks this reasoning is flawed.

He said that even though Costa argues that only a small percentage of a state-related university’s funding comes from the state, the money given to the four state-related universities is more than that given to all of the state-owned universities combined.

Pennsylvania operates 14 universities through the State System of Higher Education including Slippery Rock University, Clarion University and Indiana University of Pennsylvania. These institutions are subject to the same rules as other governmental bodies under the new law.

Costa, who sits on Pitt’s Board of Trustees, also said that forcing state-related universities to release records related to professor salaries and other bargaining agreements would harm their abilities to be competitive.

“I do believe that the amount of information they are required to provide is sufficient. It is very difficult to find the right balance for these institutions. Because of the competitive nature of the universities, I think they provide adequate information to see what the money is being used for.”

Pitt’s Vice Chancellor for Governmental Relations Paul Supowitz defended the University’s openness and said that Pitt turns over phonebook-sized reports to the state every year as part of the budgeting process, which then become public.

The reports contain, among other things, a list of all the companies and contractors that the University paid more than $1,000 for particular services. These costs, however, are not itemized or broken down according to individual projects.

Supowitz said he believes Pitt acts in good faith in terms of public recordkeeping.

“I think there’s a lot of information. If you look at the universe of information, it does give the person who takes the time to look a good idea of how [Pitt’s money is] spent.”

But Pitt sophomore Matt Orochena doesn’t plan on blasting off into Supowitz’s universe of phonebooks anytime soon.

Orochena says he doesn’t lose much sleep thinking about how Pitt spends his tuition money. But the industrial engineering major does sometimes wonder how much the University’s constant construction projects, like the one recently begun in Benedum Hall, really cost.

As an industrial engineer, Orochena wonders whether or not Pitt is spending too much on materials or labor. He even questions, occasionally, if the University is making the best deals with its contractors.

But when it comes to answering these kinds of questions, Orochena admits that he doesn’t really have the time or the interest to dig through Pitt’s records to find out.

Good thing he’s not interested, because the records aren’t there anyway – at least not for the public to review.

“They could be wasting a lot of money, it’s possible,” he said. “But there’s not much I can do to change how they’re spending it even if I did know how they’re spending it.”

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