Cracks show in Pa. open records law
In deliberately defying the state’s Open Records Law and not suffering any consequences, the state Department of Health has demonstrated why the state Legislature should make the law tougher.
Like many other government agencies, the Department of Health seems to view public disclosure as an unnecessary burden rather than a core function of government.
Its handling of permit applications for the state’s new medical marijuana industry is inexcusable.
The department refused to identify the individuals it named to a panel to review permit applications. Then, it allowed nearly 150 applicants for pot-growing licenses to redact almost everything — including the names of some principals and the addressees of the businesses — from the applications for a publicly regulated enterprise.
According to the department, it didn’t identify the applications panel members to prevent attempts at influencing them, thus concluding that secrecy is superior to full disclosure in preventing conflicts of interest. It’s impossible to assess whether an anonymous board member has a conflict.
The Office of Open Records ordered the department to identify the panelists nearly a month ago, but it has not yet done so as it ponders whether to appeal.
On Monday, the OOR ruled that the department had failed to act “in good faith” in determining whether information on the blacked-out applications for growing, processing and dispensary permits was improperly redacted by the applicants itself.
The remedy? Just six months from the scheduled beginning of medical marijuana access, the OOR gave the department seven days to merely come up with a timetable to complete its review of the applications.
That speaks to the inadequacy of the law. The department itself repeatedly had vowed specifically to be transparent regarding the medical marijuana issue, precisely because it is controversial and demands openness. And the Wolf administration generally has vowed openness.
Gov. Tom Wolf should demand accountability from his health department. And the Legislature should take this episode as proof positive that “good faith” is inadequate motivation for too many state officials to comply with the law.
Lawmakers should add penalties to the law against state and local public officials who fail to act in “good faith” in informing the public.