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Controversy in Gregg Township pits activists against residents citing ‘abuse’ of RTK law

What is the FOIA?

Since 1967, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has provided the public the right to request access to records from any federal agency. It is often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government.
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Since 1967, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has provided the public the right to request access to records from any federal agency. It is often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government.

A controversy in Gregg Township over what some say is an “abuse” of the state’s Right-to-Know law by a local couple has attracted the attention of transparency activists and spawned a letter-writing campaign to state representatives to change the current law.

Representatives from both sides were present at a heated Gregg Township Board of Supervisors meeting on Monday that drew about 20 people into the Old Gregg School.

At a town hall meeting on Dec. 5, many Gregg Township residents learned there will be a deficit in the township’s 2019 budget due, in part, to the cost of processing an influx of RTK requests from resident Michelle Grove and her husband Casey Grove, the township’s constable. The township’s secretary, Jennifer Snyder, resigned over the stress of the job stemming from RTK requests.

Over the past year, the township spent almost $25,000 in man-hours and attorney’s fees processing RTK requests and filing appeals for some decisions from the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, according to Supervisor Keri Miller. The township granted 66 of the 90 RTK requests it received last year and denied 13 requests, said Miller.

Currently, the township has five appeals for RTK determinations pending in the county Court of Common Pleas.

Changing the Right-to-Know law?

Dawn Harpster, a lifelong Spring Mills resident, recently started a letter writing campaign to State Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, to change the RTK law so that it can’t be used to “legally harass and overburden” the township.

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A template letter Gregg Township resident Dawn Harpster attached to a Facebook post asking residents to write to their state representative. Photo Provided Dawn Harpster

“Really, we just want (our lawmakers) to be aware of what’s happening with the (RTK) law and the abuse ... some of us feel there is abuse of the law,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “I think the Right-to-Know law is great and I think it’s smart and I’m so glad we have it.”

In the case of the Groves, Harpster said, she and many other Gregg Township residents feel the couple is chasing something that’s not there.

“When you put a Right-to-Know request in and you get the information that they have available and you’re not happy with that information, that doesn’t mean that they didn’t give you all the information, that just meant that it wasn’t what you thought it would be,” she said.

Michelle Grove told the CDT last month that she files so many requests because the township “fights them so often” that she has to keep them brief.

Transparency activists speak out

Several people — two of whom referred to themselves as “champions of transparency” — told the Gregg Township Supervisors on Monday they were shocked and disappointed that they had not released all the records for which Michelle Grove asked.

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John DeBartola voices his concerns during the Gregg Township board of supervisors meeting on Monday, Jan. 7, 2018 at the Old Gregg School. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

John DeBartola, a community activist from Johnstown who has waged his own campaign for more transparency in local government, told the township supervisors that he drove two hours to the meeting to support what the Groves are doing.

“Filing five appeals (to the Court of Common Pleas) is horrendous,” he said. “You have been ordered by the state (OOR) to provide records. I honestly don’t understand why Gregg Township is doing this.”

When he said he was shocked the supervisors were still in office, several township residents who attended the supervisors’ meeting started shouting, “They’re here because we elected them,” and “Go back to Johnstown.”

John Arndt, a resident of Kissimee in Snyder County, said he was surprised and disappointed at what he called poor record keeping and secrecy in the township government.

“I think there’s something people ought to know and they’re not being told,” he said.

If Gregg Township Supervisors have nothing to hide, said DeBartola, they should ask Auditor General Eugene DePasquale “to verify and clear up all these allegations against (them)” through an audit.

Next steps: town halls, mediation?

The township’s solicitor, David Gaines, Jr., and supervisors said they are considering mediation for the RTK issue through the Center for Alternatives in Community Justice in State College.

Last month, Michelle Grove told the CDT that she planned on continuing to file RTK requests in pursuit of government transparency.

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Michelle Grove speaks during the Gregg Township board of supervisors meeting on Monday, Jan. 7, 2018 at the Old Gregg School. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

On Monday night, Michelle Grove told township supervisors that she was done being courteous at township meetings since the town hall meeting last month when “township officials attempted to enforce rules only on one family — my family.”

She has been repeatedly heckled and verbally attacked by several people serving on township boards and authorities, she said. This year, she said, she may resort to personal attacks in addition to criticizing the township’s transparency.

“The only way you will prevent this,” she said to the supervisors, “is to get this ... under control.”

Harpster said she would like to see more town halls happen, because she thinks the Groves “have a responsibility to their fellow citizens of the township to share their findings and what they think about what they found.”

She also supports the township seeking out mediation, “especially if it doesn’t cost us anything” and “it’s not one-sided.”

Though the disagreement over RTK requests persists in Gregg Township, people on all sides of the issue feel that it’s caused the political to become personal.

“These Right-to-Know requests and then the appeals ... it’s more than just about the township sharing the information they have,” Harpster said. “This is a personal thing that is affecting their lives outside of this job that they’re doing.”

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