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Two Named in Case Lament Lack of Openness

Political candidate, documentarian say McKeesport can do better

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
July 02, 2024
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

Correction: Carmine Bloise Jr.’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story. We regret the error.

McKeesport has added a page to its website to explain the Right-to-Know Law, as well as a form for requesting information. (Screenshot)

Related Story: City Chastised for Right-to-Know Practices

Two of the people named in a state Open Records office ruling that criticized McKeesport’s handling of requests under the Right-to-Know Law said the city can — and should — do better.

Documentary filmmaker Carmine Bloise Jr., who is collecting police procedure manuals for a project he has been working on for two years, said McKeesport’s procedures for handling such requests were the “worst I’ve ever seen.”

“I thought it was crazy, but apparently it’s a pattern,” Bloise said in an interview. “I do a lot of a right-to-know requests. It’s pretty typical that you don’t get a response. But this is the worst I’ve ever seen. I was astonished.”

In a ruling released last week, the state’s Open Records office cited 10 cases where residents, members of the media, or businesses asked for documents from McKeesport officials.

In each of those cases, the office alleged, the city did not respond either to the request or subsequent appeals.

City officials called the processes flawed and said an email spam filter was blocking messages about the problems. They said they have taken immediate steps to improve their responses and bring McKeesport into full compliance.

“The city has realized an extreme uptick in right-to-know requests over the last several years, including those from commercial closing companies, which have become extremely onerous for the city to answer,” City Solicitor J. Jason Elash said. ‘There have been issues with requests sent via email being delivered as spam, which occurred in many of the appeals listed in the decision.”

“All of the issues listed in the determination have been resolved,” he said.

Bloise confirmed that he received the documents he requested — almost 500 pages — and thanked city officials. But he argued it shouldn’t have been so difficult.

“These boroughs, these departments need to take these laws more seriously, and a lot of these things need to be more accessible right out of the gate,” he said.

Joe Lopretto, a retired McKeesport police lieutenant and former McKeesport Area school director, also was named in the Open Records office ruling.

Lopretto, who unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2023, said he requested the names, positions, and salaries of all McKeesport employees. The request was denied, he said.

The city told him such a list did not exist, Lopretto said.

Lopretto said he did not ask for private information such as Social Security numbers, home addresses or phone numbers. “I’m not asking for information that’s going to harm anybody,” he said. “They don’t have a legitimate answer that justifies them not giving information out.”

But Elash said the city tried to answer the request almost immediately. Although the type of record Lopretto requested does not exist, Elash said, he was given a list of all city positions and their salaries.

Bloise said he has requested police procedure manuals from municipalities across Pennsylvania, including cities similar to McKeesport, such as Sharon and New Castle, as well as larger communities such as Pittsburgh. Last week, he said he requested manuals from Pleasant Hills, Jefferson Hills and Clarion.

He requested McKeesport’s police procedure manual on May 16, 2024 and received the documents — 499 pages in all — last week. Many of the pages date to the 1990s and were originally written on typewriters. Bloise said the documents looked as if they had been freshly scanned.

Elash confirmed that city officials had to scan the paper files and convert them into digital files — a time-consuming and laborious process.

“As soon as the (open records office) determination came in, (Bloise) received it — the same day the decision was entered,” Elash said.

The procedure manuals explain McKeesport police personnel and record-keeping policies and do not include criminal investigative information, which is exempted from the state’s Open Records laws.

“My wish would be that all of this stuff that we have to ask for — everything I have to do a right-to-know request for  — should be in a database of policies,” Bloise said. “They don’t have any reason for this to be secret.”

He argued that denying open-records requests is costly to governments. When cities, boroughs and townships deny an open-records request, Bloise said, the person who files the appeal can do so for free, but the municipality has to pay their attorney or solicitor to respond.

“Pittsburgh saves themselves a lot of trouble by making these things available,” he said. “I think it should be compulsory that policies are public. I don’t think that anything should be redacted.”

Lopretto said he became familiar with the state’s Open Records law while serving on the McKeesport Area School Board.

“When we got right-to-know requests, we had to fill them out and give them back in a timely manner,” he said. “I think they don’t want to give information out. They’re elected by the taxpayers of McKeesport ... when a taxpayer asks a simple request, why don’t they receive it?”

In her ruling dated June 26, Catherine Hecker of the state Office of Open Records suggested that the city should face civil penalties or sanctions — but noted that only a court, not the Open Records office, could impose those penalties.

State law provides for a penalty of up to $1,500 for agencies or municipalities that fail to comply with a ruling from the Open Records office.

Bloise said the relative lack of penalties is a problem with the state’s Right-to-Know law.

“They thought they would never face any consequences, but the ruling suggests strongly that sanctions could be imposed on them,” he said. “I think they didn’t give a (care) until they saw such a scathing determination.”

Originally published July 02, 2024.

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