HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – It was 9 a.m. when Erik Arneson bounded up the steps of the Keystone Building and headed for the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records.
He had to wait for the building to be opened to the public.
“I have no ID badge, I have no parking pass, I have no keys,” Arneson conceded. “They were taken away yesterday.”
But Arneson insists that Governor Wolf cannot take away his title or his work ethic.
“My parents taught me that if you have a job to do you do it,” Arneson told a handful of reporters who gathered to see if any fireworks would erupt as Arneson reported for work.
On Thursday, he was given a termination letter by Governor Wolf, effective immediately. Wolf is unhappy that Arneson was appointed to the six-year term in the closing days of the Corbett Administration. It’s the governor’s assertion that the Open Records executive director is an at-will employee and therefore subject to gubernatorial firing.
“It’s absolute nonsense to think that the director of an independent office is an at-will employee,” said Arneson, who as a longtime Senate staffer helped to write the Open Records law. “The law explicitly says six years. If the law meant at-will, it would say at-will.”
So Arneson went into the office, interacted with employees and asserted his authority.
“I’m the executive director of the Office of Open Records,” Arneson said defiantly.
Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan contradicted Arneson.
“He can still think he’s executive director, but he’s not,” Sheridan said. “He’s in the office because he showed up, but he’s not taking work out and he’s not getting paid.”
It’s a bizarre situation and there were no overt attempts to remove Arneson from the office. Sheridan said a Human Resources attorney would meet with Arneson.
In the meantime, Arneson’s second-in-command, Deputy Secretary Nathan Byerly, has been appointed interim boss by Wolf and a nationwide search for a permanent replacement is underway.
In a statement, Byerly said the office will continue to function despite the dispute over its leadership.
The case seems destined for court with Arneson arguing that yes, governors can appoint but no, they cannot fire except for wrongdoing. Arneson says he’s not fighting for himself but the principle of independence for whoever sits in the chair.
“That’s why we gave the director of the office a six-year term, long enough to cross gubernatorial terms, because we wanted this office not to be under the thumb of the governor,” he said.