Sunshine Week alerts public about right to access information

March 15-21 is Sunshine Week, an annual national event celebrating the access to public information and improving the public’s knowledge of their rights to access this data.

Started in Florida in 2002, the week encourages everyone to “do something to engage in a discussion about the importance of open government.”

While initiating Right-to-Know requests seems like an activity typically limited to media and other professional figures, the right of public knowledge is something every resident can participate in.

The simplest form of participation is attending a municipality meeting, a right covered under the Sunshine Act.

Signed into law in 1976, the Sunshine Act ensures the ability of the public to be present at local government, such as a municipal council or school board meetings. It gives the public a chance to be privy to the issues under discussion, the deliberations and ultimately the decisions made.

The act also requires government bodies to announce when and where their meetings will be ahead of time. For example, county authorities, boards and commissions list the times and dates of their respective meetings through the county website, county Administrator Tim Boyde said.

Certain portions of the meetings aren’t entirely open to the public, he said. In cases of executive session, the public may be asked to leave the meeting area or sessions may be held following a meeting after the public has left. Sessions are held when boards discuss personnel matters, real estate transactions or pending litigation, Boyde said.

“We still have to report out of session what the discussion was about,” he said.

Those seeking public records are able to do so thanks to the Right-to-Know law. The law, passed in 2008, provides access to public records and information to citizens, agencies, public officials and members of the media.

Public records are defined as “any information regardless of its physical form or character that documents a transaction or activity of an agency AND is created, received, or retained pursuant to law OR in connection with a transaction, business or activity of an agency,” according to the law.

The ability to retrieve these records depends on the nature of the material being requested, Boyde said. Some is immediately available for viewing, some is not.

Boyde also acts as the Right-to-Know officer for the county.

From a uniformity standpoint, he said, it makes it easier to access records by filling out a Right-to-Know request. These requests can be submitted in email or in writing, he said. It’s up to the agency if it will honor an oral request.

Records often exist in physical and digital form, and both can be provided through a request. According to assistant State College secretary Sharon Ergler, a physical file can be viewed at the municipal office just as easily as a digital file.

Reproductions of records can be requested as well — for a fee. According to the State College website, general printed copies cost 25 cents per page, but a crash report or criminal record check can cost up to $20.

Not every record held in a public office is available to the public, however. Many exceptions exist that prevent the disclosure of some records, including those that may jeopardize an individual’s personal safety, health records, donations and pending criminal investigations.