Saturday, January 24, 2015


Charles Thompson

Gov. Tom Wolf's disputed removal Office of Open Records Executive Director Erik Arneson may bring him a dubious gubernatorial record: Fastest arrival by a governor in court

Erik Areson, former head of the Office of Open Records, arrives at work.
Erik Areson, former head of the Office of Open Records arrives at work Friday morning a day after being fired by Gov. Tom Wolf. Jan. 23, 2015. James Robinson, (James Robinson)

No legal actions were filed Friday.

But both sides in the Open Records battle were busily lining up their arguments for what now seems to be that inevitable day.

"I don't see any resolution of this issue without judicial involvement," said Drew Crompton, general counsel to the majority Senate Republican Caucus, in a Friday interview.

He and other sources noted that the Senate leadership has a variety of interests to defend:

* The six-year-old Right-To-Know Law that created the state Office of Open Records was a Senate bill, championed by then-Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County.

* There are concerns that if Wolf isn't challenged on this dismissal, it threatens the integrity of other state offices that, once filled, are supposed to operate independently of the governor.

* Arneson, who reported to the office Friday even though he is officially without duties or salary, was a longtime and well-liked Senate staffer.

The Wolf Administration seems to be hanging its hat on a 2002 Commonwealth Court ruling that upheld then-Gov. Tom Ridge's 2000 removal of a member of the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

In that case, Venesky v. Ridge, the court ruled that when laws stand silent on the removal of state officials, a clause in the state Constitution that states "appointed civil officers... may be removed at the pleasure of the power by which they shall have been appointed" controls.

The state's Right-To-Know Law, which created the Open Records position, does not address its executive director's removal.

Following the logic of Venesky v. Ridge, then, the governor, who appoints the executive director, would have the power to remove.

That Wolf did so in this case shouldn't have been a shock to anyone, Wolf's press secretary Jeff Sheridan said.

Wolf had said from the start he was concerned about the late appointment, which was announced by former Gov. Tom Corbett on Jan. 9, following months of inaction on the issue.

Arneson was sworn on Jan. 16.

Wolf's attorneys reviewed their options, concluded there are good legal grounds to reverse it, and Wolf acted, Sheridan said.

Wolf reiterated some of his concerns directly to PennLive's John Micek earlier Friday.

Arneson's allies are preparing a counter-argument based on the idea that clear legislative intent for an independent Office of Open Records was that the executive director must be free from at-will recalls.

"It was the intent that this be an independent office appointed to a term," Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre County, said Friday.

"If they (the executive director) can just be summarily removed by the governor, than it's really not an independent office. It's essentially a part of the administration and that certainly wasn't the intent of the law."

They will also likely argue that the Right-To-Know Law spoke directly to that point in setting a stagger between the executive director's term (six years), and the governor's four-year term.

Crompton also pointed to Arneson's commission from the Corbett's office, which appears to imply that the job is his unless he literally fails to perform his duties or committed some act of wrongdoing.

None of these arguments were realized in court filings as of Friday night, but that could change as early as next week, sources said.


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