County attorney Mary Lou Maierhofer made an appearance at the weekly county commissioners meeting Tuesday to help clear up confusion regarding the county’s ongoing Right-to-Know legal issues.
Three lawsuits have been filed in the Centre County Court of Common Pleas and have been appealed to the Commonwealth Court, she said. Maierhofer also addressed filings made Monday that maintain a lack of wrongdoing when dealing with recent RTK requests made to the county.
According to her, the county “absolutely did not” violate an order by Huntingdon County Senior Judge Stewart L. Kurtz by denying a public records request by Chief Public Defender David Crowley seeking phone communication records of Judge Bradley P. Lunsford.
Kurtz ordered in suits filed against the county by Centre County Judge Jonathan D. Grine, District Judge Kelley Gillette-Walker and District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller that the county should not respond to requests involving the judiciary, including Parks Miller and members of her office, and to forward the requests along to the proper officials. Court Administrator Kendra Miknis is the Right-to-Know officer for judges and Parks Miller for the District Attorney’s Office.
“We said if you want these records, we are directing you, pursuant to the court orders attached, to go to the court administrator, because that request was for Judge Lunsford’s invoices, and that’s all,” she said.
County Administrator Tim Boyde denied Crowley’s request May 18, five days after Kurtz ruled in Parks Miller’s case. The denial letter returned to Crowley directed the public defender to file the request with Miknis but also advised Crowley of his right to appeal the denial to the state Office of Open Records.
Miknis said Crowley emailed her with the request May 20. She contacted Boyde to get the Verizon cellphone records for Lunsford, which the county provided a week later.
Miknis said she provided Crowley with portions of the records that showed the monthly cost of Lunsford’s bill but had to deny the portion of the request asking for specific communications pursuant to a state law regarding judicial financial records.
The rule, Rule 509, prohibits the release of records that display a person’s personal information, including phone numbers, financial information — such as personal identification or credit card numbers — or records that could present a risk to personal security or privacy.
Bruce Castor Jr., Parks Miller’s attorney, filed a motion earlier this month to find county government in contempt of court over the response to Crowley’s request.
Castor argued in the filing that county officials violated Kurtz’s order because the request should have also been forwarded to Parks Miller. Castor said Monday that the order stipulates that the county should direct requests for records relating to Parks Miller or her office to the district attorney.
The records relate to Parks Miller because they would reflect communication between the judge and members of the District Attorney’s Office because judges and members of the office routinely have to communicate because of the nature of their jobs, Castor said Monday.
A hearing on the contempt motion is scheduled before Kurtz at 1:30 p.m. July 14 at the Courthouse Annex in Bellefonte.
Crowley also appealed the county decision to the Office of Open Records. A final determination on Crowley’s appeal has not been handed down by the state agency but a ruling could be made anytime between now and July 20, according to the office.
The issue, Maierhofer said, is that most people don’t understand the RTK law. As she explained, the law is like a large window with the county on one side and the public on the other. The public can look in, unless there are exceptions, which are the curtains that block the view of certain things.
“That’s the premise of Right-to-Know,” she said. “We want open government, and this is how it’s handled.”
It’s impossible for someone to claim the county has violated the RTK law, Maierhofer said, because the county has provided the records.
“We have been bending over backwards to not violate the judge’s orders and in fact have requested clarification to ensure we don’t violate those orders,” she said.
Whether or not cellphone bills are public records is still not a clear and settled matter, she said. One of the reasons the issue has been brought before the Commonwealth Court is due to some cases saying they are, and some cases saying they aren’t.
“There is a lot of ambiguity still in the law,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons we’re taking it up.”
The cellphone plans and phones themselves were all purchased through the county, Maierhofer said. Until March 18, the District Attorney’s Office was on the county plan. Until that point, all bills and usage — and the costs incurred to the residents of the county — are thought to be public records.
Testing what can be considered a public record is garnering a lot of publicity, she said, and the issue will likely not be over soon. The Commonwealth Court is expected to issue a briefing schedule by the end of August, she said, with 60 days to file all briefs. Oral arguments could begin by the end of the year, after which the court can take the time it needs to issue any orders.
Once orders are issued, she said, either side can appeal to the state Supreme Court — the final area of appeal.