When you’re seeking a record from a Pennsylvania state or local agency (e.g., PennDOT, your local city or township government), your request is made pursuant to the Pennsylvania Right to Know Law. If you want a record from a federal agency (e.g., the Department of Agriculture, the FBI) your request is governed by the federal Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) and a different set of rules and procedures apply.
The first step to making a request for a public record is determining: whom do you ask for it? When you want to request a government record, you don’t ask “the government” – you must identify the specific state or federal agency that has the record and submit your request to that agency.
In Pennsylvania, you can use the Right to Know Law to request any record from any Commonwealth or local agency. These are defined in § 102 of the RTKL:
A “Commonwealth Agency” is any of the following:
- Any office, department, authority, board, multistate agency or commission of the executive branch; an independent agency; and a State-affiliated entity. The term includes:
- The Governor’s Office;
- The Office of Attorney General, the Department of the Auditor General and the Treasury Department;
- An organization established by the Constitution of Pennsylvania, a statute or an executive order which performs or is intended to perform an essential governmental function.
- The term does not include a judicial or legislative agency
A “Local agency” is any of the following:
- Any political subdivision, intermediate unit, charter school, cyber charter school or public trade or vocational school.
- Any local, intergovernmental, regional or municipal agency, authority, council, board, commission or similar governmental entity.
The Office of Open Records and courts consider three factors when deciding whether an entity qualifies as a “local agency”: (1) the degree of government control over the agency, (2) the degree to which the entity is performing a government function, and (3) financial control. Your local public transportation agency may be a “local agency” that has to respond to RTKL requests, but your local economic development corporation may not.
Pursuant to § 502, every agency is supposed to have a designated “Open Records Officer.” If the agency from which you are requesting a record lists their Open Records Officer’s name and contact information on their website or other documentation, that’s where you submit your request.
If you submit your request to the incorrect agency, the open-records officer who receives your request is supposed to direct your request to the appropriate person in the correct agency. In practice, if you don’t know who actually possesses a record, the open-records officer to whom you submitted your request may not either. In any event, the agency does not have to respond until you make the request yourself.
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