Gov. Tom Wolf addresses the media during a news conference in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania on July 16, 2020.
(The Center Square) – Gov. Tom Wolf said his resistance to signing a bill that requires access to public records during emergencies isn’t a rebuke of government transparency – it’s about protecting residents’ personal information, critical infrastructure and corporate trade secrets.
Lyndsay Kensinger, Wolf’s spokesperson, said the governor will veto House Bill 2463 later this week over concerns that it would compel public agencies to disclose sensitive information – ranging from private citizens’ health records to confidential emergency plans to terrorist attack prevention and response, among other protected information – currently exempt from the state’s Right to Know Law (RTKL).
“While some specific material is protected by HIPAA and other federal laws, the broad breadth of this amendment could obviate many of the RTKL provisions that could have otherwise protected information from public disclosure,” she said. “In particular, the bill risks removing protections for critical security and infrastructure during an emergency as well as the personally identifiable information of some citizens that is not protected by HIPAA.”
The defense comes amid growing criticism from news media and legislative Republicans alike frustrated with the administration’s unwillingness to share information related to the COVID-19 pandemic response – like what health data was used to justify shutdowns or which businesses received operational waivers, to name a few.
“I always believed that giving government that superpower should have more transparency and more disclosure as to why they are doing what they are doing,” said Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, during a conference call with reporters Monday. “Not answering those data questions early on really created a lot of issues with reporting this and communicating with the general public, unlike other governors who went into detail about what they did and why.”
Grove sponsored the bill in the spring amid an expansion of the administration’s powers during the COVID-19 disaster declaration, first enacted March 6 and extended again on June 3. It passed both chambers unanimously before the Senate presented it to the governor last week.
Grove said the measure would be the first with such broad support to be vetoed in 42 years.
“He [Wolf] could just allow it to become law,” he said. “He preaches it, but this would without a doubt solidify him as the most open governor we’ve ever had in Pennsylvania.”
The issue dates back to mid-March, when after Wolf enacted widespread economic and travel restrictions, many state agencies stopped processing RTK record requests, citing the disruption caused by the pandemic.
But Grove and Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, told reporters that the excuse made little sense given that so many records exist electronically.
“We’re already into month five [of the emergency] and transparency is a critical facet of government,” Melewsky said. “To put it on hold indefinitely because of a pandemic doesn’t seem feasible.”
“It’s not just journalists that are concerned here,” she added. “It’s members of the public. The demand for public information has increased, and I think rightly so, during these times of crisis.”
Melewsky and Grove also disagree that the bill mandates access to previously-protected information, saying “there’s plenty of legal basis for denying access to legitimately protected information.”
Kensinger said state agencies resumed processing RTK records requests a few months ago. She argued that Grove’s bill “makes no lawful allowances for the health or safety” or state employees, who may be unable to access offices to process certain requests. She said his comments Monday “do not adequately address” any of the administration’s concerns with the bill.
“The General Assembly would not jeopardize its own employees and it should not jeopardize agencies’ employees,” she said.
Grove admitted the current RTKL, more than a decade old, needs more overhaul beyond access to data during emergencies. Still, he finds the administration’s excuses unpersuasive, at best.
“They have issues with the bill that I don’t think are in there,” he said. “There should be more scrutiny during these times when the governor is given more authority.”