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“A battle over executive authority versus legislative authority is brewing over the firing, and subsequent re-instatement of the Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, Erik Arneson.”- Read more.

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Erik Arneson

Paul Gordon Collier- On January 9th, Office of Open Records Executive Director Terry Mutchler resigned from her post a news conference in the Capital Rotunda.  She was originally appointed by Governor Ed Rendell in 2008.  The appointment followed the signing of the Right to Know Law, which gives Pennsylvanians a right to access to public records.   The office was created to oversee the execution of the Right to Know law.

The timing of Mutchler’s resignation is questionable, as it opened the door for then-Governor Tom Corbett to appoint a new Director to a six year term, which he did 2 days later.  Governor Corbett selected a republican senate staffer, on Januaary 11th. The move was met with ciriticism from the democrats and then-governor-elect Tom Wolf.  Mutchler’s term officially expired in April, but Governor Corbett had not chosen to re-appoint her or replace her.  Mutchler’s reason for resigning was given as taking an opportunity to work for a Philadelphia law firm.

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.

At the time of the appointment, then-Governor-elect Wolf questioned the ‘closed door’ nature of the 11th hour appointment.  While he did not question Arneson’s ability to do the job, he questioned the political motivation behind such a late move by Governor Tom Corbett.

He stated, at the time of the appointment, “I think this is the kind of thing that makes people skeptical. It makes them suspicious that something isn’t right.”

After being sworn in, Tom Wolf quickly moved to fire Arneson, who initially found out he lost his job when he showed up only to be denied access to his office.

Now Arneson is responding 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.  It seeks an immediate injunction against Wolf’s actions, which would restore Arneson to the director position, at least until a final ruling could be made.  A hearing is scheduled for February 3rd.  We will follow up when we get the results of that hearing.

Here is a part of Governor Wolf’s response to the lawsuit:

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.  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. When given the choice between protecting the public and playing politics, I will stand with the people of Pennsylvania.”

“The actions taken by my predecessor in the eleventh hour, when he named Erik Arneson, a longtime Republican staffer, as executive director of the Office of Open Records, were anything but open and transparent.  As a public servant I strive to promote democracy and change the culture in Harrisburg. I will continue to fight for the integrity of the Office of Open Records. Today’s lawsuit does nothing to alter my conviction.”

Republicans argue that Wolf’s firing of Arneson because he didn’t like the way Arneson was appointed is a violation not only of the people’s trust in ways that far surpass Corbett’s 11th hour action, but is also overtly illegal.

The political wrangling over an office which is all about government accountability to the people it serves is not lost on any political observer, no matter their political persuasion

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