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North Neighborhoods
Open records campaign proved costly, frustrating

Wednesday, March 13, 2002

By Gretchen McKay

When Bruce Glidden read in the paper that the Upper St. Clair School District was discussing spending millions of dollars to either renovate or rebuild its high school, he was concerned. How would it affect his taxes?

Your Guide to Open Government

A forensic engineer, Glidden felt he knew something about what building programs should cost -- especially since he had just consulted on a project where a similarly sized school district in the eastern part of the state had constructed a "very nice" new high school for around $26 million. Upper St. Clair was talking about spending $50 million for a new school, and that, he said, "seemed really wasteful."

After joining a citizens group called School and Community Projects Information Committee in the spring of 1996, Glidden decided to get the details. Specifically, he wanted to know how the architect had come up with the preliminary cost estimates. He began by asking for some construction documents. After some wrangling over cost, he was told he'd have to pay 40 cents per page for copying the documents. Still, he never got what he asked for. School officials claimed the documents he wanted didn't exist.

Glidden, 73, disagreed, knowing that the architect didn't pull the million-dollar estimates out of thin air. His research indicated that any information a board relies on to make decisions is considered a public record. And according to the Right to Know Law, a school board cannot deny a citizen's access to public records.

So testing a new district policy that allows citizens to seek board review of a superintendent's denial of access to public records, Glidden filed a formal written appeal. He argued his side at a hearing, then listened to the response from the administration's lawyer three weeks later.

Based on the hearing officer's recommendations, the school board ended up voting to deny the long-time Upper St. Clair resident's request for information. Architect's work sheets, they concluded, were not "essential" documents for the board's decision on the project and therefore were not considered public records.

Glidden briefly considered appealing that decision to Common Pleas Court but ultimately decided against it.

"By the time I got the information on the estimate, it would have been useless, with the project already put out to bid," he said.

Glidden said the experience was frustrating. But not so much that it dissuaded him from taking similar action when, a few months later, he heard that the board was going to hold a closed meeting on the project.

Directors said they were meeting simply to discuss the school renovation project before it went out to bid. Glidden, however, accused them of holding illegal secret deliberations, a violation of the state Sunshine Act.

To protest, the senior citizen filed a lawsuit in Allegheny Common Pleas Court; more than a year later, the court ruled against him. Undeterred, Glidden appealed to Commonwealth Court. Thirteen months later, in the spring of last year, he found out he'd lost that case, too.

"So that was the end of that," he said. The final cost of renovations for the high school, which opened in 1999, was $43 million.

Had it not been for the cost -- he would have had to pay an attorney to take his appeal to a higher court -- Glidden would have continued the fight.

While he wishes the outcome had been different, Glidden doesn't regret challenging the Upper St. Clair administration, even if it means that some people roll their eyes when he stands up to speak at a meeting or wave him off as a cost-conscious troublemaker.

"Sure, it hurts my ego," he said, "but one of the most important things to me is that [boards] have open meetings."

That said, given the chance, Glidden said he probably would approach requesting open records differently. When he started asking for documents related to the building program, he said, he took issue with "everything" he thought was in violation of the law. For example, when the board president failed to announce what the board would be discussing in closed executive sessions, "I wrote a letter, pointing out the law." Just how many? By the district's count, Glidden sent 40 letters and 21 requests to inspect documents.

Now, Glidden said, he would fight only major issues, such as those involving money.

He offered these words of advice to other people who think they've been denied access to open records. For starters, decide -- very specifically -- what information it is you want. Then determine the board policy regarding allowing access to such documents, and make a formal written request. And refuse to be intimidated.

In a way, Glidden said, he was luckier than most on his journey. Being semiretired, he had the time to research the law and prepare all his court documents. That way, he spent about $1,500, compared the district's legal bill of more than $25,000.

But even if you do everything right, be prepared to lose.

"If a board doesn't want you to see it, they'll find a way to get around it," he said.

Glidden currently is working with other residents in trying to get the school district to reveal the details of a mediation agreement approved in May with the general contractors for the school renovation project.

District officials say details of the $850,000 agreement with Dick Corp. cannot be released because both sides agreed not to make it public and therefore the document is privileged. Glidden, though, believes that the documents should be public and is working to prove his case.


Editor's Note: This is one of a yearlong series of articles about local residents who have used public records and public meetings to accomplish a goal. If you have a story you'd like to tell, please contact us at opengov@post-gazette.com. For more information and discussion about public records and meetings, or to learn more about this First Amendment project, go to the PG's First Amendment Web page at http://www.post-gazette.com/firstamendment/. The First Amendment Forum is a project of the Post-Gazette and the Pew Center for Civic Journalism.

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