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Featured News & Politics Spotlight PA

Secrecy is too often the norm in Pennsylvania state and local governments

by Christopher Baxter of Spotlight PA

Our state and local governments exist to serve our communities. We pay our taxes each
year, and in return, we the taxpayers have a right to know what our government is
doing, how it’s spending our money, and whether we’re getting the services we deserve.
But there are fewer and fewer journalists on the front lines, keeping the government
honest — and when officials don’t face questions or requests for public records on a
regular basis, they increasingly lean toward the side of secrecy over transparency.
Making matters worse, state and local governments have vastly more resources than
members of the public, allowing them to fight requests for information in court (using
taxpayer dollars!) knowing full well that most requesters can’t afford to fight back.
We know all too well what can happen when governments are left to their own devices.
And that’s why Spotlight PA and many of our partner newsrooms are forging creative
solutions to shift the balance of power back in favor of you, the taxpayer.
But we need your support to keep up the fight.

This week is Sunshine Week, a nationwide effort each year to call attention to the
importance of government transparency and access to public records. Those are two
principles that are core to the mission of Spotlight PA, the statewide newsroom I lead.
If you’re not familiar with our work, Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan
newsroom covering the state Capitol in Harrisburg and urgent statewide issues. We
share all of our journalism at no cost with more than 90 news outlets across the state.
And we work to bring our partners together to fight for transparency.
Here are just a few of our victories during the past year:

  1. In July, Spotlight PA — with the Centre Daily Times and WJAC-TV —
    successfully petitioned the Centre County Court of Common Pleas to unseal
    records related to a sex extortion case
    that Penn State University lawyers had
    sought to keep hidden from the public.
  2. In August, the state Commonwealth Court ruled in favor of Spotlight PA and
    against the state Health Department, which sued us seeking to block access to
    anonymized data about how many people use medical marijuana for each of
    Pennsylvania’s qualifying conditions.
  3. In October, Spotlight PA — with the York Daily Record, The York Dispatch, LNP
    Media Group, and WITF Public Media — successfully reached an agreement
    with the York County Clerk of Courts requiring better access to criminal court
    after the news organizations sued alleging numerous legal violations.

In all three of those cases, and many more across the state last year, the newsrooms
were represented at no cost by Paula Knudsen Burke, a Pennsylvania-based attorney
with Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The committee in 2020 launched a
new Local Legal Initiative to provide wider legal support to journalists.
“It’s always concerning when public officials and agencies trend more toward secrecy
than transparency, but especially so in the courts, where we’ve seen and helped
journalists push back against a troubling erosion of access to even basic information,”
Burke said in an interview.

Each and every day, Spotlight PA reporters across the state are fighting in big and little
ways to track your tax dollars and understand what our government is doing. How do
we have the time and resources to do such important work?

That’s thanks to you.

Our journalism and the future of Spotlight PA depend on your support. Make a tax-deductible gift of any amount at spotlightpa.org/donate, and as a special bonus, all contributions will be DOUBLED thanks to a matching gift from The Benter Foundation in Pittsburgh, which is committed to ensuring an honest and ethical government.
I hope I can count on you to help Spotlight PA continue to fight for government
transparency, hand-in-hand with our newsroom partners. Please consider making a gift
now at spotlightpa.org/donate. If you’d like to donate by check, please send it to:
Spotlight PA, 228 Walnut St., #11728, Harrisburg, PA 17108-1728.

Christopher Baxter is the executive director and editor-in-chief of Spotlight PA, an
independent, nonpartisan newsroom based in Harrisburg. Email him at
cbaxter@spotlightpa.org. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you
who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.



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