Monday, October 19, 2015

The PLCB has nothing to hide...unless it makes them look bad

Chairman Tim Holden:
What's the PLCB hiding?
As reported Sunday in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review the PLCB, an agency with no business reason to hide anything (since they have no competitors), has not been very open or honest when dealing with their bosses — that us, the citizens of Pennsylvania. After all, that's what their supporters keep telling us, that we're the owners of a "valuable public asset." Shouldn't the "owners" be able to ask questions and get answers?

That's not what happened, according to the Trib's reporter, Kari Andren; instead, the LCB instructed their press secretary to delay the release of such information by forcing the Trib to go through Right To Know channels:
The agency's board members directed a press secretary not to provide basic information about a former employee, such as dates of service, job title and salary, unless the reporter filed a formal request — a move that could have delayed the release by more than a month, the emails obtained under the state's Right to Know law show.

We have to watch what we ‘give' her regarding employees without going through the Right to Know channels, even if it is public information,” board member Michael Negra wrote in a Sept. 23 email. “Agree,” Chairman Tim Holden responded the same day.
LCB spokesperson Elizabeth Brassell said the agency, “fully respects and supports the release of public information to interested parties.” But Erik Arneson, head of the agency charged with overseeing the state's open records act, said the board members' actions were not in keeping with the intent of the law. “The Right to Know (RTK) Law was not designed to be a tool used by agencies to delay access to clearly public information,” Arneson said.

More proof of this use of delaying tactics is the now 111 days over which the PLCB has refused to release their yearly financial statements. Some were verbally stated during the Ross hearings over two months ago, but so far nothing has shown up on paper or online. If the PLCB were a "real" business, they would have had to release their yearly statement before the first quarter earnings statement. However, the PLCB doesn't update the citizens with quarterly statements. Why not? It's a painfully simple answer: they aren't a real business, and never have been, and never will be.

Melissa Melewsky, a media lawyer with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, agreed that the LCB's approach doesn't follow the spirit of the open records law, or Gov. Tom Wolf's call for government transparency. Wolf said he was “confident in Chairman Holden's ability to continue to make the LCB more transparent,” and the previous Chairman (and still current board member) Skip Brion has said, “This is a state agency; we should be as transparent as possible.” Apparently he has changed his mind.

This is not the first time the board has used RTK to delay, or has done things in the dark that should have been in the sunshine of public scrutiny. Years of notational votes (where the Board members meet informally and off the record to make decisions, and then only vote on 'that thing we talked about' in official meetings) and vague to non-existent board meeting information have keep the "owners" (you and I) in the dark about the working of the PLCB.

Who knows, if the public were privy to the machinations of the State Store System, we may never have had wine kiosks, or $66 million in computer system cost overruns, or paid over $4 million for an out-of-state firm to come up with that snappy "Fine Wine And Good Spirits" branding. All money well spent, I'm sure...once the real facts finally come out in a few years, the brilliance of it all will shine clear. Or not.

This is not the first time the PLCB has been publicly charged with ignoring the intent of state law; this is not the first time they've lied by omission. This is not the first time they've delayed the release of reports on their performance. So we have to ask: why the delay this time? We see the smoke, what is the fire that the PLCB is trying to hide while privatization is still a very real possibility in the Legislature? We urge the Trib to keep digging — faster, if possible — and encourage the reporters at the Inquirer, PennLive, the Daily Record, and the Post-Gazette to do the same. Because we the citizens — the owners — need this story to come out before privatization slips away. It's clear that the PLCB feels threatened by it; that's enough reason to dig out the truth.

The time to privatize is now.

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