HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – “I feel good, confident, ready to go,” said Erik Arneson as he strolled into Harrisburg’s Commonwealth Court Wednesday morning holding his wife’s hand.
Arneson is at the center of a case that President Judge Dan Pelligrini called the most important administrative issue before his court in decades. The basic question is whether Governor Tom Wolf had the authority to fire Arneson, who was appointed in the closing days of the Corbett administration as executive director of the Office of Open Records. It’s a six-year term and it pays $140,000 a year.
Seven judges spent 90 minutes grilling attorneys on both sides of the issue and they looked at the case from every angle.
Pelligrini said elections matter and wondered whether ruling in Arneson’s favor would gut a governor’s power. “What’s the point of an election if a governor has no control?” Pellegrini asked.
Arneson has repeatedly taken credit for helping to write the open records law. Several judges blasted it for not making crystal clear whether or not a governor can fire the executive director.
“Why didn’t the General Assembly put language in the legislation?” Judge Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter asked.
But Judge Kevin Brobson said it’s a problem if the head of the agency can be fired at-will. “The law was sold to the public as a watchdog independent of the governor,” Brobson said.
The attorney general’s office argued the case for Wolf and left the courtroom without comment.
Arneson and his attorneys praised the judges, a wise move considering those judges haven’t ruled on the case yet. A decision is expected within 30 days.
“They seemed engaged,” said Matt Haverstick, attorney for Senate Republicans who wrote the law. “I think they really got that this is a real debate about the independence of the Office of Open Records.”
The difficulty, of course, is the law itself. It doesn’t explicitly state that the governor can fire the executive director. It doesn’t explicitly state that he can’t. That’s the big question that the court is wrestling with.
There’s no question, according to acting executive director Nathan Byerly, what the law should say.
“The office has to be completely independent and has to function independent of the governor’s influence, and I think that’s where we have to look moving forward,” Byerly said. “The issue they’re gonna look at is whether or not the law’s actually written that way and we’ll have to wait and see what they have to say.”
It’s now up to the judges. Arneson says the public, which will likely never encounter the Office of Open Records, should care about the outcome.
“If you want to know what your government is doing, why it’s doing it, and the records that underlie those decisions; if you want to see the records, this is the office you come to when the government tells you no, you can’t see those records,” he said.