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The Issue

Gov. Tom Wolf late last week fired Erik Arneson, executive director of Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records. After failing to reappoint Terry Mutchler, the office’s first executive director, or name a new executive director when Mutchler’s six-year term expired in April, then-Gov. Tom Corbett appointed Arneson on Jan. 9 — 11 days before Corbett left office.

This is no way to treat an office of vital importance to Pennsylvanians.

Terry Mutchler, who was vigorous in her defense of the public’s right to know, was owed better treatment than she got from Corbett. Amid calls for her reappointment, she waited months before learning she wasn’t going to be asked to remain. She resigned Jan. 9.

Erik Arneson, who worked in journalism and helped craft the law as a top Senate aide, also deserves better than to be cast as a purely political appointee.

And most of all, the taxpayers and citizens of Pennsylvania deserve better.

The Office of Open Records was created by a Right-to-Know Law that correctly reversed how requests for public records are handled in Pennsylvania.

Before the law took effect in 2009, a citizen who cared about how her or his government was working and what it was doing — or a journalist acting on behalf of the public's right to know — had to justify a request for a public record. The presumption favored secrecy, rather than openness. A public agency's reason for withholding a document was considered reasonable until proven unreasonable — usually at the cost of attorney fees and court costs or someone just giving up given all the hurdles.

Today, officials at all levels of government must justify denying access to budgets, agendas, expense reports and information that shows how officials are working or not working. And, if a citizen is not satisfied with the reasoning behind a denial of records, he or she can file an appeal with the Office of Open Records.

There is no need to hire an attorney; the office takes the case for citizens wrongly denied access to public documents.

Lancaster County had a case of its own. Stephanie Rittenhouse, a Hempfield School District mom, asked to see individual budgets for the district’s individual schools, broken down by academic departments and operational divisions.

The district not only said no. It claimed that (A) only the final budget filed with the state Department of Education is public record; and (B) that it didn’t have individual budgets for its schools.

As the Office of Open Records said, the district’s argument — that it doesn’t have line-by-line budgets to prepare its overall budget — “strains credulity.” The office did its job and ruled  for Rittenhouse, for all Hempfield residents and, effectively, for all Pennsylvanians.

The budget of a public entity — be it a school district, a county, a city, township or agency — is an accounting of how it is spending taxpayer dollars. Of course it is a public record.

The fact that it took the Office of Open Records to make that point both clear and legally binding makes the office’s importance clear — and the political circus now underway over its leadership a sadder-than-usual Harrisburg spectacle.

The Office of Open Records needs to be beyond the reach of politics as usual.

On Friday, the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association urged the Wolf administration and lawmakers “to resolve this matter quickly and transparently, and to protect the credibility of the Office of Open Records that Terry Mutchler and her very committed staff worked almost seven years to establish.”

“We further urge them to amend the law immediately to clarify any ambiguities regarding the appointment process and ensure that this does not happen again,” PNA said in a statement.

We second this wholeheartedly.

The public’s right to know is vital to good government because it ensures accessibility, transparency and accountability.

 The Office of Open Records is the advocate responsible for defending the public’s right to know.

The public should put Harrisburg on notice that it wants this office to be treated better in the future.

   

ONLINE

 Related links

openrecords.state.pa.us

bit.ly/PARight2KnowLaw