The Washington County president judge on Thursday affirmed a decision by the state Office of Open Records that Rep. Bud Cook be given access to redevelopment authority records related to the Local Share Account projects and requests for funding from casino gambling revenue.
Cook, R-West Pike Run Township, began seeking copies of records in December of last year dating back to 2008, the initial divvying up of the local share after slot-machine gambling was legalized at The Meadows Racetrack and Casino.
The law also designated a portion of the revenue be used for community improvements, economic development and job training in the host county.
Over the past 11 years, the Local Share Account has funded just over $101.3 million worth of projects ranging from sewers in the West Brownsville area and roads at Southpointe and Starpointe business parks to more modest ones such as doors that open automatically at the Washington Senior Citizens Center.
The amount of money that will be available this year, reduced during the casino’s temporary closure due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, is not yet known, said Washington County Commission Chairman Diana Irey Vaughan.
Cook appealed the redevelopment authority’s denial for copies of LSA files to the state office that handles open records requests in January.
On Feb, 26, the administrative decision found that the redevelopment authority was required to comply within 30 days. The authority then appealed the matter to Washington County Court.
President Judge Katherine B. Emery, in a six-page finding of facts and conclusions of law, determined that when granting Cook permission to look at records, “that narrow view does not comport with either the letter or the spirit of the Right-to-Know Law. The Act requires access for inspection and duplication.”
Cook requested copies of documents, not to view them, the judge wrote.
“The court finds that simply allowing Rep. Cook to come to their office and look through 17 drawers of cabinet files is not what the Right-to-Know Law requires or intends,” Emery decided.
Cook is seeking records related to 433 projects. He previously received information about the Alta Vista Business Park in his district and LSA-funded projects of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Promotion Agency for several years.
Annual lists and summaries of projects and audits were previously given to Cook, but his request for additional information in December of last year is not “duplicative,” Emery ruled.
“The burdensome nature of a right-to-know request is a real and costly one,” the judge wrote. “But it is a burden worth bearing to provide open and transparent government.”
The copies Cook is seeking will involve thousands of pages, but that doesn’t mean the authority can’t comply with his request, she pointed out.
The judge noted the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a slowdown of economic development, providing “an ideal time” for the redevelopment authority to comply with Cook’s request.
The redevelopment authority is permitted to impose a “reasonable” charge to copy records at a per-page rate it establishes, and the judge said “the duplication fee incorporates the material and labor costs.”
The redevelopment authority’s request that Cook pay in advance “is not appropriate,” according to the ruling.
Colin Fitch, solicitor for the redevelopment authority, said Thursday afternoon, “I’ve not seen any order, and I haven’t talked to my client.”
Any appeal of Emery’s order would go to Commonwealth Court.
Cook’s office, when contacted for comment about the judge’s ruling, did not immediately address it.
Through the Pennsylvania House GOP, Cook released a statement regarding the LSA selection process and attached a letter dated Nov. 13 he sent to the Washington County commissioners.
“I understand that substantial changes to the LSA award selection process were discussed over the summer,” Cook wrote.
Irey Vaughan said she and then-commissioner candidate Nick Sherman talked about making changes to the Local Share process during their successful 2019 campaign.
In August, the board of commissioners outlined several, including the live-streaming of public hearings on proposals; keeping minutes; requiring roll call votes by committee members making recommendations to the commissioners, including justification for or against funding and amounts; notifying applicants of the outcome; a formal committee vote on funding of LSA money requested outside of the usual timetable; accumulating no more than $2.5 million in unallocated funds; and requiring LSA committee members to disclose potential conflicts of interest and sign a statement.
“This has nothing to do with Bud Cook or the lawsuit,” Irey Vaughan said Thursday afternoon.