HQ2 and the Right-to-Know

Regardless of what camp you find yourself in on the topic of Amazon’s HQ2 courtship with North American cities, the process has triggered open record requests and questions about the degree to which cities are required to disclose the documentation of their overtures to the corporate giant.

This is especially true in Pittsburgh, where inclusion of the region’s bid, titled PGHQ2, as one of 20 finalist cities led to renewed demand for the full proposal to be released via the state’s open records law. Why is this important? Many cities have offered significant tax and civic incentives to sway Amazon’s interest. With promised results of $5 billion in economic investment and the creation of 50,000 jobs, an argument can be made that it is in the public interest to know how elected officials believe HQ2 will influence the social, political, and economic fiber of their region.

These desire for details have manifested themselves in open records requests throughout many candidate cities, to varying degrees of success. Pennsylvania’s mechanism for open records requests, the Right-to-Know Law, was signed into law in 2008 and is facilitated by the state’s Office of Open Records. Like many open records laws, all records are presumed to be public and are deemed “open” unless one of several exceptions bars their disclosure. Thus, the burden is on the government agency to argue why certain records, for instance a proposal with wide-ranging public impact, should not be made publicly available.


So what’s happening in the Steel City? Like hundreds of other cities across North America Pittsburgh submitted its bid in October 2017, the details of which were not publicly disclosed. PGHQ2, led by elected city and county officials, first cited a confidentially agreement with Amazon. The reasoning for secrecy soon shifted to “protecting a competitive advantage.” Right-to-Know requests for the proposal were refused. Requests for secondary records (letters, emails, notes) pertaining to the process, not the proposal itself, were met with half hearted gestures. The City initially stated those weren’t public either; the county responded that “the records do not exist.” Eventually these secondary requests were fulfilled through state intervention (Harrisburg itself is a big proponent of Pittsburgh’s bid).

But what of the PGHQ2 proposal? As is often the case with open records requests, persistence pays off. Fast forward two months to January 24, when news broke that Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records issued a ruling on a Right-to-Know request filed by local WTAE reporters ordering Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh to make the full PGHQ2 proposal and corresponding documentation public within 30 days. In a coincidental twist, both entities have 30 days to appeal, the same period one has to return unopened items to Amazon. If delivered, there’s no doubt Pittsburghers will open this proposal package.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto holding the PGHQ2 proposal. Image Credit WTAE Pittsburgh.

The jury is still out on whether or not it’s truly in the region’s best interest that the PGHQ2 push is successful. With revived economic sectors, oft-touted cultural amenities, regional charm, and room to grow, Pittsburgh’s case is compelling. But the records and documents supporting that case shouldn’t be kept from the very citizens that make Pittsburgh so alluring. Open records laws, like Pennsylvania’s, are meant to serve the public good and promote transparent and accountable government. If Pittsburgh officials baited the PGHQ2 hook with tax incentives, public domain authority, or questionable civic inducements, the citizens of Southwest Pennsylvania certainly have a Right-to-Know.


Records Management Outreach to Elementary Schools and Colleges

It all started in the beginning of the year.  My school sent out a call to parents and guardians to see who would be interested in coming to our school’s career day.  Guest speakers were sought to provide students with meaningful experiences that motivate and promote career/college readiness.  There had already been curiosity centering on the media center. What did the library media specialist do for the students?

Whenever students had free time (recess and/or lunch), they would volunteer to come and help the library media specialist in the library.  Shelving books was a popular job.  As the same students would come to the media center, they started to make the connection to information collected on them when they would check books out.  What was this all about?

The students started to understand about library records.  The library database could alert the library media specialist when books were overdue or tell her where books were located in the library collection.   All of this information could be found in a record.  The students wanted to know how records could help in different job positions.  To answer this question, Career Day speakers were found to explain their positions which also helped the students understand the importance of records for institutions, media centers, and presidential collections.


Suddenly, the students were exposed to a type of job that they never really thought about—the archivist.  Students found out that this job can be an adventure.  “Without archives many stories of real people would be lost, and along with those stories, vital clues that allow us to reflect and interpret our lives today” (Laura A. Millar, Archives: Principles and practices, p. 74, https://goo.gl/7MVzX2).

This job type helps researchers, such as students, to gain access to information that they may need for various projects during their schooling.  Archivists preserve documents (papers, books, etc.) by keeping them in an order that would help students find the documents when needed but easy to find when stored in bookcases.  The archivist knows the documents and the authors who had written them so that they could better find documents meeting students’ informational needs.  This information can be about something from the past that could help the students understand a topic in the present.

This development started me to create an archive of interested career day speakers who want students to know that people in the information management profession are very important people to know.  This has expanded into a need for my college students as well.

Just because the students are not studying in that major does not mean that they do not want to know about it. They need to be informed that such major and/or position exists.  This will expand and open new possibilities for the students and for all of us.  Actually, this opens new doors to other ways to find information to meet students’  informational needs.

Want to join this archive of career speakers for elementary and college students?  Please fill in the form at this link:  https://goo.gl/forms/ejEOUPImQvveKqzp2



Legislating the Creation, Access, and (not) the Retention of Officer-Worn Body Camera Records

As more and more law enforcement incidents are captured on police officer-worn body and dashboard cameras, states are obliged to consider legislation that governs the creation, retention, and public access of such records. Regulations, where they do exist, often lack uniformity between municipalities, cities, and states, as illustrated by the Brennan Center’s guide detailing police body camera retention policies across the U.S.

Awareness of such regulations, and navigating their inconsistencies, is an important part of how records managers execute their positions. What happens when retention and preservation provisions are absent from legislation governing the creation and access of such police records?

The Pennsylvania General Assembly is currently considering a bill that would legislate law enforcement use of body-worn cameras, and more importantly, public access to such records. Approved by the PA Senate (currently pending a vote in the House) on October 19, Senate Bill 976 – an expansion of Pennsylvania’s current Wiretap Act – would essentially do two things.

First, the bill would increase areas where police officers are permitted to use body cameras, such as within private homes and in public spaces. Under the bill, officers would not be required to directly inform individuals they were potentially being recorded. Second, the bill would place a considerable burden on those attempting to access these records.

SB976 stipulates that within 14 days of the incident a written request be submitted that includes, in “particularity”, the date, time, and location of the incident. Each individual in the footage must be identified by the requester, or at the least, described. If a request is denied – grounds for dismissal include lack of “sufficient particularity” –  an appeal must be filed in a PA Court of Common Pleas within 14 days of the denial, a $250 filing fee will be applied, the written request must be resubmitted, and finally “if the requested audio or video recording was made inside a structure, [identify] the owner and occupant of the structure.”

The amendment seems to contradict itself in that it specifically states that “an audio or video recording by a law enforcement officer shall not be subject to production under the act of February 14, 2008 (p.l.6, no.3), known as the right-to-know law” (Section 6702) while stipulating that that a court may grant release if a “preponderance of evidence” are met, including that “disclosure of the audio or video recording would be permissible under the right-to-know law.”

Pennsylvania civics and policy aside, you may be asking where records management fits into all this? While legislating officer-worn body camera use and record access, the bill does nothing to address appropriate retention periods and preservation methods law enforcement entities could be required to employ uniformly across the state. The bill actually removes language concerning retention periods of certain recorded communications. Primary sponsor Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, has acknowledged that provisions governing how long footage and accompanying data must be retained before it’s erased, as well as when a body-worn camera is turned on or off, are not considered in the bill.

The intent of the SB976 may be noble (“body cameras have a civilizing effect on both the officers and members of the public”), and there is no doubt that balancing public transparency, individual privacy, and the integrity of police investigations presents public policy and records management challenges alike. However, constraints to access and record keeping oversights may only serve to distance the citizenry from law enforcement and public officials, rather than fostering the transparency and trust the bills seeks to instill.

As states continue to consider legislation governing the use and access of police officer-worn body and dashboard camera records, records mangers should be engaged in this dialogue. If creation and access to such record can be legislated to serve the public interest, so too can record keeping policies. Records mangers must continue to be advocates for clear and consistent retention and preservation provisions that benefit the public good, in Pennsylvania and across the nation.