The City of Philadelphia won’t tell you where its employees travel.
Why do we know? Billy Penn asked a couple of months ago, through an Open Records Request. Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration announced it would ban all non-essential travel to North Carolina and Mississippi because of the states’ controversial anti-LGBT laws. The obvious question was, Why would any City of Philadelphia employees travel to North Carolina or Mississippi in the first place? Or to any number of states? And why would they go?
Outside of a Mayor’s many field trips — Michael Nutter went to Italy for the Pope and several other international locations — we wondered what kind of non-essential travel your tax dollars were paying for. Or essential travel, for that matter; it seems odd to think of city employees traveling for work purposes. Where would they go? And for what reason? Would there ever be a reason anyone from Philadelphia traveled to North Carolina, especially for something “non-essential?”
So on April 21, we submitted a Right To Know request asking for “[r]ecords of all out-of-state travel made by city employees from 2004 to present day, with information featuring the destination of the travel, the employee(s) involved and the purpose of the travel.”
The city replied a week later asking for an extension of a month. After that month, it replied asking for an extension of another three weeks. We agreed. Then there were two more emails asking for extensions of a week, until Tuesday. That’s when we got this message: “Your request is denied.”
The city claimed it had grounds to deny the request because records were not described “with sufficient specificity” and for being too broad. “It would place an unreasonable burden on the City to go through all of its records for an extended period of time without knowing, with sufficient specificity, what records would be responsive,” the letter read.
These are not good reasons, according to Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania News Media Association. She said the broadness of the request shouldn’t matter because specific details were asked for. As for being too much of a burden for the city to look up the information?
“The courts have been very clear the public can’t suffer because the agency doesn’t organize or store its records in a way that’s not easily searched and received,” Melewsky said. “The agency is obligated to comply with the law. If that’s 20 hours of work that’s what it means.”
In the meantime, we’re checking with our lawyers about the next step of what it might take to get the city to release travel records.