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Pennsylvania Office of Open Records 

 

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) _ A journalist-turned-lawyer who has helped Illinois citizens gain access to government records will oversee Pennsylvania 's new open-records law.

 

Gov. Ed Rendell appointed Terry Mutchler to be the executive director of Pennsylvania 's new Office of Open Records on Thursday.

Establishing the office was mandated by a law passed in February that overhauls Pennsylvania 's public access law, which had been one of the nation's weakest. The office is designed to set policies for state and local government agencies and handle disputes between citizens and government officials over what should be released.

 

"The Office of Open Records will serve an essential role in helping the public better understand how their government operates," the governor said in announcing the appointment. "Terry brings the ideal combination of knowledge and experience to her new role."

 

Mutchler is a native of East Stroudsburg and a Penn State University graduate who worked for The Morning Call in Allentown and The Associated Press in Harrisburg , New Jersey , Illinois and Alaska .

 

She left journalism to get a law degree, worked on a statewide political campaign in Illinois and was a media lawyer at a Chicago law firm before becoming an assistant state attorney general there in 2003. A year later, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, a Democrat, created the position of public access counselor and appointed Mutchler to fill it.

 

The Pennsylvania law, which will take effect in January, is "very strong" and revolves around the provision that says all government records beyond list of exceptions are presumed open to the public, she told the AP in a telephone interview Thursday. The current law limits public access to a narrow list of public records that are available.

 

Mutchler said she wants to reassure Pennsylvanians who need help getting records that she will be on their side.

 

"If I make an error, it's going to be on the side of openness," she said Thursday in a telephone interview.

 

She said she hopes to find middle ground between citizens who believe any refusal to release government records is evidence of a conspiracy and government officials who treat records requests as invasions of their personal privacy.

 

"I believe there are extremes on both ends of (the) open-government equation," she said.

 

Mutchler is expected to start the $120,000 a year job in June. The office will be located in the state Department of Community and Economic Development. The appointment does not require Senate confirmation.

 

In Illinois , Mutchler answers questions and helped resolve disputes about public records and open-meetings issues, and conducted training sessions around the state.

 

She has clashed most often with schools boards over questions of public records access, she has said. She also challenged the administration of Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich over its refusal to release the names and qualifications of unsuccessful state job applicants and federal subpoenas that reporters had sought.

 

In Pennsylvania , Mutchler said she wants to meet with local government officials to listen to their concerns about the law and help them understand the spirit of the law and how to comply.

 

The door to her office will always be open, Mutchler said, and "my greater hope is that the doors of local government will be open to me."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.