By PETER JACKSON
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Republicans who control the Pennsylvania Senate sued Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday over his firing of his predecessor’s appointee as head of the state Office of Open Records, adding fuel to a partisan clash during the new chief executive’s first week in office.
The lawsuit filed in Commonwealth Court contends that Erik Arneson, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s appointee and a petitioner in the lawsuit, is entitled to serve a full six-year term and that Wolf terminated him without cause in “an unlawful power grab.”
The suit seeks to restore Arneson as the agency’s executive director, including back pay and benefits, and declarations that Wolf violated the state Right-to-Know Law and the state constitution.
An initial hearing was scheduled for Feb. 3.
Arneson was appointed one week before Wolf was sworn in as governor on Jan. 20. Wolf ousted him Thursday and named the agency’s deputy director, Nathan Byerly, as acting chief pending a national search for a full-time director.
Wolf has defended his action by saying Corbett’s eleventh-hour appointment lacked transparency. He also contends that the open-records director serves at the will of the governor, citing a 2008 hiring letter sent to the agency’s original director, Terry Mutchler, that advised her she could be fired for any reason or none at all.
“As a public servant I strive to promote democracy and change the culture in Harrisburg. I will continue to fight for the integrity of the Office of Open Records. Today’s lawsuit does nothing to alter my conviction,” he said Monday.
Along with the governor, the lawsuit named the Department of Community and Economic Development and within it, the Office of Open Records as respondents in the case.
Arneson defended himself on WILK radio outside Scranton.
“Nobody has questioned my qualification to do this job,” he said. “Nobody who knows me has questioned my integrity or my dedication to interpreting the law fairly and that’s what I’ll do once this all gets settled.”
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said Democrats are unhappy not only over the open-records appointment but with the more than two dozen other nominations to boards and commissions that Corbett posted in his final weeks in office and which Wolf wants to recall.
As for whether Wolf has the authority to fire Arneson, he said the “courts will have to make that ultimate determination.”
Shortly before the court filing, the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition, a leading open-government advocate, called on Wolf to reconsider his action on the grounds that it could lead to firings by future governors in retaliation for unfavorable rulings by the agency and erode its authority.
“Our strenuous objection is not about the individuals but rather the long-term and negative impact Wolf’s attempt to change the process will have on the integrity of the Office of Open Records, and by extension, on Pennsylvanians’ right to access the records of their government,” the coalition said.
The coalition, part of a national network, is a nonprofit volunteer group that works to increase government transparency and help citizens understand the state’s open-records and open-meetings laws.
Arneson, a former newspaper reporter and veteran Senate aide who played a key role in rewriting the Right-to-Know Law in 2008, has steadfastly insisted that he is rightfully the executive director.
Arneson showed up for work Friday, the day after he was fired, prompting emphatic statements by Wolf’s office that he was no longer on the state payroll.
When he arrived at the open-records office Monday, Arneson said he was advised by two human resources officials that the executive director’s office was locked and that he was restricted to the public area.
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