One of the first actions by Governor Tom Wolf upon his taking office back in January of this year was to fire the Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, Erik Arneson. The move was done, according to Wolf, because Arneson was appointed during the last hours of the Corbett administration.
Arneson responded to the firing by suing Governor Tom Wolf. The legal issue here is whether Governor Wolf has the constitutional right to fire a Corbett appointee on the basis that the appointee was made in the last days of the Corbett administration. The lawsuit was joined by the Senate Majority Caucus.
On June 10th, a Commonwealth Court ordered Arneson reinstated. He responded at the time by saying, “The decision is tremendous. Mainly it’s tremendous for the Office of Open Records.”
Even in June, Arneson expected Governor Wolf to appeal. He said, on the potential of a Wolf appeal, “My lawyers have indicated if that happens, it would generally have the effect of basically suspending the order from the Commonwealth Court. So if that happens, I will walk back across the street to Senator Pileggi’s office.”
Before he was appointed to Office of Open Records, Arneson served as Senator Pileggi’s Communications and Policy Director, a position he returned to after being fired by Wolf.
Arneson added, “I was only here about a week and a half but, I told these guys a little while ago it was a wonderful weekend and a half. They’re great and they believe in the mission of this office.”
As was predicted in June, Governor Tom Wolf has followed through and issued an appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court this past August 9th, Wednesday. The attorney for Arneson, Joel Frank, told reporters in a news conference, “Our position remains and has been consistent that the governor only has the right to terminate the executive director of the Office of Open Records, no matter who it is, upon cause only.”
Governor Wolf’s spokesman, Jeffrey Sheridan, countered, The Commonwealth Court’s ruling is inconsistent with previous case law, and therefore, the Wolf Administration moved forward to ask the Supreme Court to restore the proper balance of constitutional powers.” The Wolf administration maintains that they need not have ’cause’ to fire the Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records.
The Pennsylvania Office of Open Records oversees the administration of Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law. Arneson, in his role as a Republican Senate Aid to Senator Dmonic Pileggi (R) was one of the architects of the legislation.
Arneson is a Republican Senate Aid, who was the communications and policy director for Republican Sen. Dominic Pileggi since 2005. He was also one of the architects of the rewriting of the Right to Know law.
So far, some of the highlights from the hearing reveal the two contrasting perspectives that could decide the matter.
John Delone, an attoreny in the PA Office of Attorney General aruging the case for Governor Wolfe, argues that the state constitution gives the Governor the power to fire anyone the governor wishes to fire, for whatever reason, citing case law that goes back to the 1800s.
Matthew Haverstock, the attorney representing the PA Senate Republicans Causus, which was part of the original suit against the Governor, argues that the language used to define the position held by Arneson prevents the Governor from firing him until he has served out his 6-year term.
Justice J. Michael Eakin seemed to seize on the term limit language in the legislation that created this position. He asked the Wolf attorneys why would the legislation create a term limit if they intended it to be a position the governor could change at will.
“Why have a term if it’s at the whim of the governor?,” Eakin said. “Why put a six year term if it’s meaningless.”
In addition to the term limit question, the office was intended, it was argued, to be somewhat removed from office due to its near-judicial nature. If the office intended to oversee government is subject to the whim of the governor, the Senate Caucus lawers argued, then why have the office at all?
The Wolf attorneys countered that regardless of the office the legislation created, it cannot undo the constitutional framework for appointing and firing office holders in the executive branch. The constitution gives that power to the head of the Executive, the governor.
The court has allowed Arneson to continue in his duties until a decision is made. The timing of that decision has not been announced by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.