I cited volunteer EMS and fire companies, non-profit libraries, private foundations, economic development corps and the then proposed private PA turnpike operator. Naysayers scoffed.
The Pennsylvania Office of Open Records has since confirmed . . .
Volunteer fire companies are subject to the requirements of the Open Records Law.
The Office wrote "the issue of whether a fire department is subject to the RTKL has been . . . [decided]. In Wood v. Delta-Cardiff Fire Company, AP 2009-0812, the OOR determined that fire departments are subject to the RTKL." See Also, Brown v. Frystown Community Fire Co. AP 2009-0199. Wood v. Delta-Cardiff Volunteer Fire Co. AP 2009-812.
The OOR observed, an "Agency" is not limited to named governmental units or branches, nor providers of essential governmental services, but includes "any similar governmental entity." 65 P.S. §67.102. The seminal case is Pierce v. Morris Township, Morris Township Fire Co., AP 2009-0116, (Oct. 2009) wherein the OOR opined:
Non-profit entities like the Fire Co. may qualify as local agencies if they are sufficiently governmental in nature. Volunteer fire companies have consistently been held to be governmental entities, and been deemed local agencies under other statutes that do not specifically include them in their definition, e.g., Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act, 42 Pa.C.S. §§8501-8564 (“PSTCA”). See Zern v. Muldoon, 516 A.2d 799 (Pa. Commw. 1986); Wilson v. Dravosburg Volunteer Fire Dept., 516 A.2d 100 (Pa. Commw. 1986). Case law also holds that a volunteer fire company is an entity created to perform a governmental function. See id.; Guinn v. Albertis Fire Co., 614 A.2d 218 (Pa. 1992); Weaver v. Union City Vol. Fire Dept., 518 A.2d 7 (Pa. Commw. 1986); Flood v. Silkies, Meckes & Klecknersville Fire Co., 933 A.2d 1072 (Pa. Commw. 2007)(non-profit volunteer fire company founded by volunteers and separate from municipality constitutes a local agency). Notably, fire-fighting may only be performed as a non-profit enterprise, and thus is not proprietary.
In both Zern and Wilson, the Commonwealth Court reasoned that volunteer fire companies were sufficiently governmental in nature to qualify as “local agencies” entitled to immunity under the PSTCA. Specifically, in Zern Judge Crumlish found that the unique “history, structure, organization and public duty of volunteer fire companies distinguish them from any other organization in existence in this Commonwealth today.” 516 A.2d at 804. Volunteer fire companies, including the Fire Co., exist to perform a governmental function on behalf of local governmental units. Wilson, supra; Harmony Volunteer Fire Co. & Relief Ass’n v. PHRC, 459 A.2d 439 (Pa. Commw. 1983)(holding fire-fighting is governmental in nature).
Fire companies and other private entities might take notice. Although the OOR now considers the matter as well settled, the issue will be decided on this appeal to the Commonwealth Court.
Unlike political subdivisions and wholly governmental agencies, quasi-governmental agencies, such as fire companies, regularly do not have appointed or retained legal counsel. Yet as a general rule, corporations may not represent themselves but through a licened attorney, which begs the question: Can a fire company represent itself before the OOR?
Taking the logic of Pierce still further, might the officers of a volunteer fire company find themselves subject to the Pennsylvania Ethics Act?
Well, not if they behave anyway, but?
Full disclosure: I am a member of a volunteer fire company.