As recent weeks have shown, Gov. Tom Wolf has a wealth of arguments on his hands in the politically divided state capital. He might even have the facts on his side in a few of them.
Not so in his wrongheaded effort to break the agency that enforces the public’s right to government records. If Wolf has any interest in picking his battles, he should begin by dropping this one.
A Commonwealth Court panel gave the Democratic governor another opportunity to do so Wednesday, ruling that he exceeded his authority when he fired the executive director of the state Office of Open Records, Erik Arneson, shortly after his inauguration in January. Arneson, a well-regarded longtime aide to Senate Republicans who helped develop the landmark law creating the office, was appointed by Gov. Tom Corbett in the waning days of his administration.
A majority of the judges found that the legislature has the power to protect the records office from the whims of the governor and that it clearly intended to do so under the Right-to-Know Law. The most obvious sign of that is the director’s six-year term — a useful assurance for an official who adjudicates disclosure disputes that often involve the governor and his subordinates.
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As the court noted, a governor who could fire the director heedless of his designated term “could effectively frustrate the very purpose of the” records law. “Indeed, in discerning legislative intent, we do not presume results which would seem absurd. To presume theoretically that the legislature would permit a governor to exercise coercive control over the ... (records office) would be an absurd result.”
Wolf’s assault on the records office was part of a broader objection to Corbett’s eleventh-hour appointments. Dismissing Arneson, a qualified appointee to a unique office, could be charitably considered a rookie mistake in that context. The trouble is that Wolf doesn’t seem to be learning from it: His office responded to the court’s rebuke by immediately promising an appeal.
That keeps the governor in the ridiculous position of arguing that there is no meaningful difference between the records czar and a member of the Fish and Game Commission, a comparison that has figured prominently in the governor’s case to date. And even if Wolf does have a legal argument, as he apparently believes, he is fighting for the glaringly problematic notion that a governor should be able to fire the state’s top transparency official without cause. Arrayed against principles such as open government and independent oversight, Wolf has a few legal technicalities and plenty of what looks increasingly like partisan pique.
The governor should heed the court’s considered advice, let Arneson get back to work, and focus on, say, getting an energy tax for school funding. Win or lose, at least he can take comfort in being right about that one.