Delinquent water bills public under RTK

From the PNA Legal Hotline

Pennsylvania Newspaper Association

Q: I submitted a request to the local water authority for delinquent account records for 2010. The agency denied my request and cited “bill payer privacy” as the reason for denial. Is that right?

A: No. The delinquent accounts should be provided under the Right to Know Law (RTKL).

The water authority is a public agency pursuant to the RTKL, and it must provide access to public records that document its transactions or activities. Delinquent account records are financial records that document the water authority’s transactions and activities related to billing and payments.

Financial records are defined to include:

Any account, voucher or contract dealing with:

  1. the receipt or disbursement of public funds by an agency; or
    ii an agency’s acquisition, use or disposal of services, supplies, materials,
    iii equipment or property.

As a financial record, the vast majority of the exemptions in the RTKL do not apply, based on section 708(c). In order to deny access to a financial record, the agency has the burden to prove the records are made not public by a more specific law, court order or lawful privilege or, exempt under section 708(b) (1), (2), (3), (4), (5), (6), (16) or (17).

None of the potentially applicable exemptions provide a blanket of confidentiality based on “bill payer privacy.” Therefore, the records are public and must be provided in accordance with the RTKL.

There have been two cases where county courts have addressed access to utility bills under the RTKL. In both cases, the courts were clear that the requested records are public pursuant to the RTKL.

You can read the decisions here:
Anderson v. Sharon Sanitary Authority
Signature Information Solutions v. Chester Water Authority (and more here)

Pennsylvania Newspaper Association attorneys provide member newspapers with advice on government access issues.