COVID-19 Municipal Update: Handling Right-To-Know Law Issues During the COVID-19 Emergency

access_time Posted on: May 12th, 2020

Municipalities operating under an emergency declaration should continue to strive for transparency.

While the Right-to-Know Law (RTKL) continues to be in effect for most municipal entities, its function has been temporarily suspended for the Commonwealth due to the current COVID-19 emergency. Pursuant to Section 901 of the law, all requests must receive a response within five business days – excluding days closed for business. If an agency faces “bona fide issues” related to this pandemic, the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records’ (OOR) advisory permits temporary suspensions exceeding the scope of that law. The OOR recommends the agency seek their solicitor’s advice before taking this recourse.

Under Act 15, municipalities operating under an emergency declaration should continue to strive for transparency. Though agencies are encouraged to timely process requests if feasible, when unable to do so they should also notify the public of their strategy.  While Act 15 provides temporary relief from some RTKL requirements, compliance is of course the best practice.  When compliance is impossible an emergency or Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) can be implemented;  this strategy must specifically address how RTKL requests will be handled moving forward. For instance, implementing an automatic email in response to RTKL requestors, providing a notification on the agency’s website regarding a delay, or mailing letters to requestors about longer response times are all COOP options. Several agencies have failed to do so, leaving the Senate no choice but to subpoena the administration and mandate documentation production.

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