7/21/2011Pennsylvania Court Hides Free Rides for Toll Collectors
Pennsylvania court rules the public has no right to know about the free use of toll roads by public employees.
Public employees can take rides on toll roads at taxpayer expense, but these trips are not subject to disclosure according to a ruling Tuesday by the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court. A three-judge panel denied the freedom of information request of the Harrisburg Patriot-News for E-ZPass transponder usage information data by for employees of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. On October 21 the paper sought details on the 2000 toll collectors who do not pay for use of the road, regardless of whether the travel was job related.
"I am requesting information in Excel format that details employee usage of Pennsylvania Turnpike since Jan. 3, 2010," bureau chief Jan Murphy wrote to the commission. "I would like to know how many employees there are and how many have E-ZPass transponders assigned to them. Of those employees with commission-approved transponders, I am requesting their names, their positions with the commission, and a record of their usage of the turnpike including identifying the interchanges where they enter and exit the turnpike and the times and dates of travel. If this would cost more than $100, please notify me in advance."
The commission immediately denied the request, citing Pennsylvania's motorist privacy statute which offers substantially more protection than other states for tolling information. The data is specifically exempt from the right-to-know law and is not even "discoverable by court order." States like California allow lawyers to obtain toll road usage records for use in divorce proceedings.
The Patriot-News appealed the commission's refusal to the state Office of Open Records, arguing the privacy law was meant to protect the general public, not to shield government employees from disclosure of their employment benefits. The Office of Open Records on December 1 decided that the turnpike must turn over the job titles of those with free transponders and toll road usage records by those transponders so long as the names of the employees involved were redacted. The commission appealed the decision and the Commonwealth Court sided with the toll road.
"All of the information specified in section 8117(d) of the Transportation Act is exempt from disclosure, and the exemption includes vehicle movement records," Judge Patricia A. McCullough ruled. "While requester did not use the term 'vehicle movement records' in her request, she did seek a record of the employees' usage of the turnpike, including identifying the interchanges where they enter and exit the turnpike and the times and dates of travel. The term 'vehicle movement records' is not defined by the Transportation Act. Nevertheless, we can perceive of no other types of records which would fit within a definition of this term other than the type sought by requester herein."
The request for the job titles of free account holders was denied because the commission insisted it maintained no documents containing that information. A copy of the ruling is available in a PDF file at the source link below.