Transparency has become a buzzword, one of those principles that politicians of all stripes pledge fealty to, but often in practice fall short. For those who value the ability of We the People to know what is happening in our government, the past couple of weeks in Penn’s Woods have been bad ones.
For starters, the grand jury investigating whether Attorney General Kathleen Kane leaked confidential court information recommended the state’s Shield Law, upholding the right of journalists to keep confidential sources confidential, be changed to remove that protection when it relates to grand juries.
In a misguided effort to preserve the secrecy of such proceedings, the jurors placed blame for the leaks on the reporters writing the stories rather than on the individuals – including possibly the Attorney General – who actually leaked the information. Weakening a critical protection of journalistic freedoms is akin to blaming the escaped horse for the farmer having left the barn door open.
Shield laws are important because officials – elected, appointed and hired – who see to hide information from the public generally are willing to use the power of their position to harass, punish or otherwise frustrate the news media to prevent transparency from occurring. Simply put, the ability to protect the confidentiality of sources makes it possible for journalists to do their job precisely at the time it is most important for them to do so.
The other hit to transparency came just days after Governor Tom Wolf took office when he attempted to fire the director of the state’s open records office. Since its inception over six years ago, the Office of Open Records has become a vital tool for the media, watchdog groups, citizen activists and concerned voters to obtain information from governments at all levels that seek to deny access.
Although the state’s Open Records Law can and should be strengthened, it has brought about a higher level of transparency to government. It is critically important for the independence of that office to be maintained, free from interference by both the executive and legislative branches of state government. That independence was honored by governors, Democrat and Republican, until now.
Former Governor Ed Rendell appointed Terry Mutchler as the first director of the Office of Open Records. The law states that executive directors shall be appointed for a six year term. So, when Republican Governor Tom Corbett took office she continued in her job – actually past the six year mark as Corbett did not act immediately to name a replacement when her term expired. That move came in early January during the waning days of his administration when Mutchler resigned and Corbett named Erik Arneson as the new executive director. Arneson, a former state senate aide, played a key role in crafting the Open Records law making him eminently qualified for the job.
Within days of his inauguration, Governor Wolf, objecting to the timing of his predecessor’s action, fired Arneson. Arneson’s dismissal triggered a firestorm of protest from senate Republican leaders who have correctly asserted that the job is not an “at will” position, but rather an appointment to a fixed term. Arneson, claiming he could not be fired, showed up for work the next day as did the acting director appointed by Wolf. A court battle now looms.
Setting aside the political stupidity of starting a turf war his first week in office, a lot more than a battle between a Democrat Governor and Republican Senate hangs in the balance. If Governor Wolf succeeds in turning the Office of Open Records into a political fiefdom it will become impossible for it to fulfill its mission. Above all, the Office of Open Records must remain free from political pressure. How willing would an executive director who serves at the will of the governor be to grant open records requests which the administration wants to keep information hidden?
Candidate Tom Wolf ran for office promising a “fresh start.” But by seeking to politicize the Office of Open Records, Governor Tom Wolf has fully embraced the worst aspects old fashioned politics. There are many ways for a governor to confront a legislature, but tampering with transparency is a foolish way to begin.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)