Open-Records Dispute: When Is an Association a Local Agency, Anyway?

The Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors is challenging an Open Records Office ruling that it is a local agency subject to records requests regarding lobbying activities.

Pennsylvania associations lobbying on behalf of political entities could be forced to publicly disclose documents, according to a ruling by the state’s Office of Open Records —a decision that one association is challenging in the courts.

The Patriot-News of central Pennsylvania reported that the ruling came after a state resident filed four requests for records under the state’s “right to know” law with the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors and was denied access on the grounds that PSATS is not a “local agency.”

The state Open Records Office ruled September 4 that PSATS is in fact a local agency because it was created by the state General Assembly in 1921, township governments appoint its voting membership, and townships pay membership dues to the association.

PSATS says the records office is misreading the statute. “We believe that the Office of Open Records has misinterpreted the definitions [of what a local agency is] and has made a ruling that we don’t think the law intends, which is why we are filing an appeal with the local court system,” said PSATS Executive Director David Sanko.

In the appeal, PSATS General Counsel Scott Coburn argued that the ruling is not consistent with past decisions regarding similar organizations, The Patriot News reported. Coburn said the association should not be considered a local agency because its leadership is elected by individuals rather than townships, its policies and resolutions are not binding on the townships, and the townships do not pay the association’s staff salaries or control the group’s assets or day-to-day operations.

Terry Mutchler, executive director of the Open Records Office, told The Patriot-News that a past version of the right-to-know law would not have applied to PSATS, but the current version is “one of the most far reaching” in the country and one of only a few “that can reach the records of private organizations.”

If the court upholds the ruling, the decision could affect other statewide associations, including the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs Board and Staff, the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania League of Cities and Municipalities, and the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.



(photo by Drab Makyo/Flickr)

Katie Bascuas

By Katie Bascuas

Katie Bascuas is associate editor of Associations Now. MORE

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