Open Records agency dispute to be decided next month

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – Erik Arneson is the man selected to lead the Office of Open Records by Governor Corbett in his final week.

Erik Arneson was the man fired by Governor Wolf in his first week.

The dispute landed in Commonwealth Court Wednesday morning and the only testifier was Erik Arneson.

But interestingly the case is ultimately not about Erik Arneson.

Commonwealth Court Judge Dan Pelligrini was plunked into the middle of the showdown that’s really about power over the Office of Open Records and its executive director, regardless of who it is.

In one corner: the governor’s office who argues the Open Records executive director is an at-will employee and therefore fire-able.

In the other corner: Senate Republicans who argue the position was intended to be independent and must remain so.

“It’s an independent office,” argued Matthew Haverstick, an outside attorney hired by Senate Republicans. “It’s designed to be independent. The statute makes clear its independence.”

But the statute doesn’t make it perfectly clear and that’s the dilemma facing the court. The law doesn’t specifically state the Open Records director can be fired by the governor. It doesn’t explicitly state that he can’t be fired by the governor.

Senator Dominic Pileggi (R-Chester) wrote the law and was in court, but only as a spectator. Pelligrini wouldn’t let him testify, saying the law’s language must be the court’s guide, not the testimony of an individual lawmaker. But Pileggi, who is rumored to be considering a run for county judge, has his opinion.

“The clear intent of the statute is to have the office an independent office,” Pileggi said, “independent of the political whims of the governor.”

Arneson is a longtime employee of Pileggi.

Many people at the Capitol are scratching their heads at Governor Wolf digging in his heels on the otherwise legal appointment of Arneson, who is otherwise qualified.

I asked him about it Tuesday afternoon on the eve of the Commonwealth Court hearing. Wolf said he was frustrated by the process of an outgoing governor, in his closing days, making a six-year appointment of a GOP insider to an important position. He said the process of conducting a national search for a permanent executive director is underway.

He’s also not focusing on bigger power struggle between branches of government.

“I’m trying to do what’s right here,” Wolf said matter-of-factly. “I’m not sure how it’s being received outside, but in my heart I know I’m doing the right thing.”

On Wednesday, Pellegrini decided not to decide. He fast-tracked the case to a full panel of Commonwealth Court March 11.

In the meantime, Arneson is removed from the Office of Open Records, though he is free to work for the Senate. He said Wednesday he had nothing lined up yet, though he may return to his former employer.

Because Arneson was removed, at least temporarily, the governor’s office claimed victory.

Not surprisingly, so did lawyers on the other side.

“We’re getting what we want,” Haverstick said. “We want a fast decision on this. We think we’re right.”

But it doesn’t matter what lawyers or the governor’s office thinks. It matter what judges think and that won’t be known until after the March 11 hearing.

There was irony, as noted by a longtime legislative attorney.

It was a hearing about transparency, he said, but no cameras were permitted into the taxpayer funded courtroom to hear the taxpayer funded attorneys make arguments to the taxpayer funded judge on an issue of great importance to taxpayers.

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