Open Records Office requires appeals on full sheets of paper

BY KARI ANDREN  kandren@tribweb.com

Put down the Post-Its. Set aside the paper scraps. The state Office of Open Records only wants full sheets of paper.

The office dismissed an appeal for records this week that had been filed by state prison inmate David Dixon on a scrap that amounted to about 1/3 of a sheet of paper, said Erik Arneson, executive director of the office.

The Office of Open Records is the quasi-judicial state agency that enforces Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law. When public agencies deny information, say they don’t possess relevant documents, or don’t respond to requests, citizens can appeal to the office for free.

Seeking public records using a full sheet of paper might seem obvious, but it turns out, that’s a stipulation the OOR had to put in writing. Appeals must be filed on 8.5×11 inch or 8.5×14 inch paper.

“We put that policy into place last year because we were receiving a lot of inmate appeals on paper fragments and, given the volume of cases we deal with, it really slows things down when the paperwork can’t be scanned into the system using our copier/scanner,” Arneson said.

The OOR dispensed with a record 2,926 appeals in 2015, with 61 percent coming from inmates, according to the agency’s annual report.

Arneson said the OOR once received an appeal filed on the back of a soup can label.

State prison inmates are provided with a writing instrument, and indigent inmates are given stationery and writing instruments upon request, said Corrections spokeswoman Susan McNaughton. Otherwise, inmates can buy pens, paper, folders and other office supplies from the prison commissary, she said.

A commissary price list shows 200 sheets of notebook paper costs $2.11 while 200 sheets of ink jet computer paper totals $5.87. Both are 8.5×11 inches, which would be accepted by the OOR.

Dixon can file a new appeal as long as 15 days have not elapsed since his request to the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole was denied, according to the OOR Final Determination.

This is just the latest example of inmate requests and appeals shaping the state’s Right to Know Law, enacted in 2008.

The prevalence of inmate requests – which have sought everything from mundane records on prison policies to oddities like education records of singer Taylor Swift – spurred proposed changes to what inmates can seek from public agencies.

Senate Bill 411, approved by the Senate last fall and now pending in a House committee, would limit inmate requests to about a dozen categories related to inmates’ education, discipline and work; court procedures and sentencing; and information about the prison in which they’re housed.

This story was first posted Thursday, August 11, 2016 at 2:15 p.m.

Arneson’s open records irony

ArnesonBY MELISSA DANIELS  mdaniels@tribweb.com

Embedded in a six-page, jargon-filled, run-of-the-mill Office of Open Records decision is a twist of barbed wire for those who thought Erik Arneson, former spokesman for Pennsylvania’s Senate Republicans, would use his position in the state’s Office of Open Records to retaliate against Democratic Governor Tom Wolf.

Last week, in one of the first decisions he’s made involving the man who tried to boot him from his job, Arneson sided with the governor.

For those who don’t know: It took Arneson five months and a round of litigation against the governor to keep his job as executive director of the office.

Wolf fired Arneson in one of his first acts as Governor, saying he did not want a political appointee running an office that was meant to be independent. Wolf criticized the appointment process for the job as “murky,” though he refrained from attacking Arneson personally. Arneson, who was appointed by Gov. Tom Corbett on his way out the door, took the case to Commonwealth Court.

In June, when judges said Wolf did not have the authority to fire Arneson, Wolf said Arneson could return to his $140,000 job pending an appeal to the Supreme Court.

Arneson’s office on Aug. 5 issued an order that agreed with the administration’s denial of a Right-to-Know request filed by a state Republican party official seeking records including “any and all travel vouchers, expense forms, and reimbursements” submitted by the governor.

Paul Engelkemier, deputy communications director with the state Republican Party, submitted the request in May; he argued the records were associated with Wolf’s travel out of state and “are necessary to certify that arrangements have been made through the Commonwealth’s online booking tool and verify the lowest cost of reservations.”

The administration denied the request, saying the records didn’t exist.  Arneson upheld that denial.

The woman who oversees the review, management and processing of all travel requests, approvals, vouchers, expense forms and reimbursement for the state submitted a sworn affidavit saying she conducted “a thorough and good faith search” and found no such records.

Pennsylvania governors have unlimited use of a car, driver and airplane, she noted, and none of that travel requires approval or reimbursement. What’s more, she said: “Since assuming office, the Governor has also voluntarily opted to bear the costs of business related meals and overnight accommodations incurred during the course of all in- and out-of-state travel at his personal expense and has waived reimbursement of the same from the Commonwealth.”

The decision from Arneson’s office says: “Based on the evidence provided, the Office has met its burden of proving that no responsive records exist in its possession, custody, or control.”

So there’s that.

Process-oriented? You bet.

Political? Not so much.

NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to correct an error. The original version said Arneson signed the order; the order was in fact signed by appeals officer Kyle Applegate. The wording in Paragraph 6 has been changed to “Arneson’s office on Aug. 5 issued an order…” and in Paragraph 11 to “The decision from Arneson’s office…”