Public Employees and The Right-to-Know Law: What You Should Know

WesSince the late 1950s, both state and local government in Pennsylvania have been subject to some form of open records law – a law that defines what public records are confidential and which are not. The current open records law, known as the Right-to-Know Law (RTKL), has been in effect since 2009. The name of the law is actually somewhat misleading, because the right is actually limited to obtain information contained in existing documents. A person seeking information must know what to ask for. If a public record contains the information being sought, and is not subject to one or more exceptions contained in the law, the seeker of that record will have been successful. A citizen’s guide to the law is found here.

A Pennsylvanian resident named Simon Campbell is president of Stop Teacher Strikes, Inc., an anti-union operation targeting the public sector. He is also a key actor in the self-styled Pennsylvanians for Union Reform, a group dedicated to personal freedom in the same way that Right-to-Work groups fight in any meaningful way against the advancement of workers.

In 2010, Campbell sought from the state’s Office of the Budget the release of federal income tax information for current and former employees of the Office of Open Records. The Commonwealth Court ultimately held that the requested documents were prohibited from disclosure under the federal tax code.

In 2012, Campbell requested from the Commonwealth documents containing the following information for that year:

  • The names of all employees under the Governor’s jurisdiction who had political committee contributions deducted from their pay and the names of the committees receiving those contributions;
  • The total amount of money received the employer agencies to reimburse the government for the cost of deducting and remitting the contributions;
  • The total amount of union dues collected by payroll deduction from these employees; and
  • The names, state-issued e-mail addresses and home addresses of all fair share fee payers.

The Commonwealth denied all requests, based upon exemptions contained in Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law as well as provisions of the state’s Election Code. Campbell appealed the denial. The Commonwealth then issued a notice of this appeal to all employees under the Governor’s jurisdiction. The state’s Office of Open Records followed up with an advisory to affected employees. That advisory is printed below. Ultimately, Campbell withdrew his request.

Campbell also requested salary and benefits information for employees of Pennsylvania’s 14 public universities from the PA State System of Higher Education. The universities were ready to give him the requested information when the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF), the faculty union, sued to block its release. Campbell withdrew his request in this matter also, citing litigation costs as the reason.

Most recently, Campbell filed a request for the names and associated home/mailing addresses of all active members, retired members (annuitants), and inactive vested members of the Pennsylvania State Employee Retirement System. SEIU 668 has fought to obtain exclusions for many positions held by our members. We have not yet been successful in all instances. We have also encouraged our members to file for individual exclusions under the law.

In a separate action, on July 23, 2013, Paul Peirce of The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review newspaper, filed a RTKL request with the Commonwealth’s Office of Administration for a copy of the state’s current payroll, listing employee names, department, job title, duty city (city where they work, salary, and date of hire. On August 26, 2013, OA delivered its final answer to the request, which provided all requested information, except for the cities in which individual employees work, and the full names or first initial and last names of individuals who were exempt under the RTKL. In response to OA’s partial denial of the request, Mr. Peirce filed an appeal with the Office of Open Records (OOR Docket No. 2013-1658). In the past, such requests involving our members have been part of a crusade on the part of some right-wing anti-union forces to attack our rights to mutual aid and protection under Act 195. The newspaper’s request does not appear to be related those attacks. We have determined not to intervene in this matter.

To date, we have participated in 3 such appeals this year. While these cases have involved state employees, the decisions being made by the Office of Open Records and the record being made at this administrative level establish a firm foundation for success if any of these cases are reviewed by the appeals court. The Right-to-Know Law is applicable to county and local governmental agencies as well as the state. With all the current interest in reducing the size of government, there will be more pressure on public officials to pass employee information on to the public. To the extent that we may be able to convince the state to refuse disclosure of employee information, county and local governments may be more inclined to follow suit.

There are a number of legal issues yet to be decided under the Right-to-Know Law. When your public employer gives you notice of a request for employee information under the Right-to-Know Law, it is critical that you forward that information to your Business Agent or the Harrisburg union office immediately. It is preferable that you provide a copy of the information provided by your employer. The time frames for action by the union can be very short and we don’t want to sleep on the rights of our members.

 

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