Pennsylvania GOP Demands Governor Reinstate Open Records Director

by | January 27, 2015

By Amy Worden

Gov. Wolf got starkly different messages from the Republican-controlled chambers of the General Assembly on Monday.

Senate Republicans announced they had filed suit in Commonwealth Court against the governor over his decision to fire the director of the office of open records.

Meanwhile, newly-elected House Majority leader David Reed (R., Indiana), in his first public comments on Wolf, said he believed Republicans could find common ground with the Democrat's administration.

In the court case, attorneys speaking on behalf of ousted director Erik Arneson and the Republican caucus said the open records office is quasi-judicial, and therefore Wolf was acting beyond his authority when he terminated Arneson.

"If it is supposed to be a watchdog agency . . . it has to be an independent agency," said attorney Matt Haverstick, who is representing Senate Republicans.

He said the suit seeks an emergency injunction to reinstate Arneson, who was appointed to the six-year term by Gov. Corbett just 10 days before Corbett left office. The hearing on the injunction was set for next Tuesday.

For his part, Wolf said he is fighting for the integrity of the office by firing Arneson.

"By removing Mr. Arneson, I am standing up against an effort to destroy the integrity of the Office of Open Records and turn it into a political operation," Wolf said in a statement. "These attempts to change the office, which exists to protect the public's right to know, are the exact reasons people distrust their state government."

Wolf said elected leaders should be open and transparent, and Corbett's eleventh-hour appointment was "anything but open and transparent."

Wolf, who last week named the office's deputy director, Nathan Byerly, as acting director, said Arneson was an at-will employee and therefore could be fired at any time.

Arneson, his attorney and open records advocacy groups point to the legislative intent of the open records law that established the the director hold a six-year term specifically to overlap a gubernatorial term.

Meanwhile, in a luncheon speech to the Pennsylvania Press Club, the House Majority leader struck a decidedly more welcoming tone for the new governor.

Reed said he agreed with Wolf's top priorities as laid out in his inauguration speech: "jobs that pay, schools that teach, and government that works."

"We want to work with the governor to bring those to the fore," said Reed.

In a 15-minute speech that covered broad ground, Reed said he wants to eliminate "corporate welfare," find a way to reduce school property taxes, trim the size of government and more equitably distribute education funds.

Reed also said he supports legislation legalizing medical marijuana because there are "too many children and citizens in general who could benefit."

Reed said the legislature and the new governor must address the major budget driver, public pensions, as part of the budget talks this spring. Reed too weighed in on the open records controversy.

"Both sides have an argument," said Reed, in response to a question from the audience. "I understand the frustration of a last-second nomination, but Erik Arneson is uniquely qualified."

Also Monday a group advocating for open records and government transparency, urged Wolf to reconsider his decision.

The Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition said Wolf's move will have a long-term negative impact on the integrity of the office.

The coalition says Wolf's action could lead to firings by future governors who dislike the agency's rulings.

(c)2015 The Philadelphia Inquirer