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Bad legislation

Proposed law would curtail openness

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Posted: Sunday, October 2, 2011 2:00 am

In the wake of a tragedy, like the recent fatal shooting of four people in Greene County, there was much speculation and gossip about how they were shot and who was responsible.

However, Greene County Coroner Greg Rohanna put all such rumors to rest by releasing the results of an autopsy conducted by forensic psychologist Dr. Cyril Wecht.

In the future, though, local residents may not be able to get official answers to such nagging questions.

The state Senate’s Local Government Committee voted in favor of Senate Bill 961 this past week, sending it along for consideration by the full Senate.

Under Senate Bill 961, coroners would have no obligation to give a full report on the cause of a suspicious death to the families of the deceased, the news media or, more importantly, to the public.

Coroners would be required to release only the “name, cause and manner of death,” and they wouldn’t have to do even that until 30 days after the calendar year in which a death occurs.

So, in the case of the recent Greene County tragedy, local residents would be kept in the dark for months wondering if the shooting was a homicide or suicide.

The bill passed both the House and Senate before being wisely vetoed by Gov. Edward Rendell in one of his final moves before leaving office. Rendell said he felt the bill would restrict the public’s access to coroners’ records and be a major blow against open government.

We couldn’t agree more with Rendell. After years of prodding state legislators to lift the veil of secrecy surrounding government at all levels, House Bill 961 would be a major step backwards in this crucial struggle.

The strength of the coroner’s office is the important role it plays for the public and the criminal justice system by providing an independent and timely investigation into deaths of questionable circumstances such as homicides and suicides.

To throw a cloud of secrecy over this important work does a huge disservice to taxpayers, who elect coroners and pay their salaries.

The bill is supported by the Pennsylvania Coroners Association, which claims it’s only trying to protect families of loved ones from the prying eyes of the media.

However, the current system does keep coroners accountable. Without having to release any information, how would taxpayers know whether or not coroners are performing their jobs?

In any event, coroners aren’t social workers or grief counselors. They work for taxpayers, not for individual families. While we’re sympathetic to the feelings of victims’ families, it is far more important for the public to get factual and timely information about suspicious deaths.

Families, perhaps more than anyone, have a stake in making sure that information about such investigations are open and provide accurate information. Keeping facts under wraps only allows rumors to spread, which are clearly more detrimental to family members.

We’re very fortunate to have had very good relationships with coroners in our area. We’re grateful to them not only for both their skill and experience, but also in their understanding of the public’s need for information. We also realize that not all areas have such community-minded coroners, who don’t enjoy a good relationship with the media. But those coroners should try to resolve their disputes with the media in their areas rather than resorting to such a draconian solution as Senate Bill 961.

We’re also concerned that our local legislators, especially those like state Reps. Tim Mahoney, D-South Union Township, and Bill DeWeese, D-Waynesburg, who have been so instrumental in leading the fight for open government, haven’t spoken out against this horrible piece of legislation.

In fact, all of the legislators in our area should be leading the opposition to this bill and doing everything in their power to try and stop it.

After all, they’ve all stepped up and told us flat out that they support the concept of open government. Now we’ll see if they truly mean what they’ve been saying.

Welcome to the discussion.

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