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State ruling: Agencies subject to Right to Know law | News, Sports, Jobs

State ruling: Agencies subject to Right to Know law | News, Sports, Jobs
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A recent ruling by the state Office of Open Records contains a conclusion contradicting a year old Public Utility Commission ruling allowing Alleghenies Broadband Inc. to begin offering services as a regional telecommunications company.

In addressing a public records request, the state open records office found that Alleghenies Broadband Inc. is an “alter ego” of the Southern Alleghenies Planning & Development Commission, meaning that ABI Inc. lacks its own identity and was likely set up as a legal shield by the commission.

That conclusion differs from the PUC’s conclusion reached in February 2021 — that ABI Inc. and the SAP&DC are separate organizations — which led the PUC to certify a permit so ABI Inc. could plan and pursue broadband internet expansion projects, likely to be paid for with millions of federal grant dollars.

The clash of rulings by the state agencies is generating more questions than answers at this time, but they could influence future actions by county leaders interested in improving internet access in areas with poor or non-existent service.

ABI Inc. Already has a broadband internet expansion project under development in Bedford County, and it has two more in the planning stages in Huntingdon County. It also expects to undertake an effort in Blair County.

The Hollidaysburg Community Watchdog, which appealed to the Open Records Office after ABI Inc. and SAP&DC rejected its request for public records, contends that tax dollars for broadband expansion should be going into building a robust fiber optics network, but are instead being used to build cell towers.

So far, the PUC is declining to comment on the recent Office of Open Records ruling regarding ABI Inc.

In an exchange of emails with the Mirror, PUC spokesman Nils Hagen-Fredericksen declined to say if the PUC will review its ruling in light of the open records office’s conclusion.

“It would not be appropriate for the commission to comment on matters involving a separate, independent agency and various other parties,” Hagen-Fredericksen said in an email.

A day after receiving that email, Hollidaysburg Community Watchdog leader Richard Latker addressed Blair County’s commissioners during a public meeting. Latker advised them of the agency’s ruling deeming SAP&DC and ABI Inc. as entities subject to the Right to Know Law.

“That gives us more than enough ammunition to seek revocation of ABI’s operating license, which we intend to do,” Laster said.

ABI Inc. Executive Director Brandon Carson, when asked about the potential challenge, said he remains confident in the information presented to the PUC for an evaluation that led to ABI Inc.’s certification as a provider in telecommunications services.

“We don’t feel that the Office of Open Records ruling has any bearing on the PUC ruling,” Carson said.

If the PUC decides to review its action paving the way for ABI’s entry into the telecommunications industry, Carson said he wouldn’t object.

“We’ll welcome the PUC taking a look at it,” he said.

When Latker spoke before Blair County commissioners, he also chastised them for supporting SAP&DC whose attorneys tried to fight the Watchdog’s public records request by claiming that SAP&DC is exempt from the state’s Right to Know Law. Commissioners Bruce Erb and Laura Burke are part of the SAP&DC board of directors.

Latecker told them: “That was absurd, but that’s what your attorneys argued… and they were blown right out of the water.”

Commissioners rendered no response.

In finding that the SAP&DC is subject to the Right to Know Law, the Office of Open Records ruling pointed out that SAP&DC has an open records policy, a Right to Know officer and a form available to the public for requesting public records.

As for ABI Inc., the open records ruling recognized that ABI was “performing a governmental function on behalf of the (Southern Alleghenies) commission” when it undertook efforts to identify broadband projects that could be presented to counties and other funding sources for consideration.

Carson, who is a full-time employee of SAP&DC, told the Mirror he receives no additional compensation as the executive director of ABI Inc.

“The dollars being invested in the (internet access) projects we’re talking about are being invested by the counties … in areas that are unserved and underserved,” Carson said.

He said ABI came up with a master plan that involves installation of equipment on existing cell towers, installation of new equipment on new towers where there are no existing towers and the use of fiber in last-mile connections that would be closest to the customer.

Based on the ruling by the Open Records office, SAP&DC was directed to provide Latker and the Watchdog organization with records related to one contract that was awarded for a broadband expansion project in Bedford County.

The ruling also recognized that ABI received 13 responses to its June 7, 2021, call for proposals addressing six proposed projects, including the one in Bedford County. Beyond the contract for that project, however, the open records office did not direct the release of any related or potentially related documents.

Media law counselor Melissa Melewsky of the Pennsylvania News Media Association found that portion of the ruling to be troubling. The state’s Right to Know Law, she said, permits access to all bid information once a contract is awarded, so the public can compare the winning bid with the ones that were not selected.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 814-946-7456.

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