HARRISBURG, Pa. (January 23, 2015) — The Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association considers the establishment of Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records to be among the most important changes to Pennsylvania’s 2008 Right to Know Law. Before the Act was amended in 2008, citizens had to file an action in court to challenge an agency’s denial of records, often at great expense and great delay.
The PNA’s legislative efforts to reform the Law included two core principles: 1) the need for the presumption of access; and 2) the need for an independent, administrative office to decide open records requests efficiently and fairly for all Pennsylvania citizens. That office became the Office of Open Records, and Terry Mutchler was its able and effective first leader.
The Law provides that within 90 days of its effective date, the Governor shall appoint an executive director of the Office who shall serve for a term of six years. Unfortunately, the law doesn’t specifically set forth the re-appointment process, a fact that has led to a disappointing series of events.
When Terry’s first six-year term ended in April, 2014, Governor Corbett did not reappoint her. Later, through a spokesman, he said that he would decide on the appointment “at the appropriate time.” After the election, Corbett’s communications director said that he planned to leave the appointment to then-Governor-elect Wolf.
On January 9, 2015, however, Corbett appointed Erik Arneson as the new Executive Director of the Office of Open Records. The PNA said at the time that “Erik is certainly familiar with the issues surrounding open records in Pennsylvania and was instrumental in the drafting of the 2008 Right to Know Law amendments. We look forward to continuing to work with him in his new role[.]”
Yesterday, Governor Wolf fired Erik Arneson, an action that Arneson and others contest.
The PNA has not taken a position on who should lead the Office of Open Records, although our members have editorialized in support of Terry Mutchler, as well as Erik Arneson. Many of our members have also expressed concern about the process, and we agree.
The Office of Open Records is critical to government transparency in Pennsylvania. Without its efforts, thousands of Pennsylvanians would have been denied access to public records without meaningful recourse. In fact, it is hard to overstate the tremendous work that the Office has performed in making Pennsylvania’s government more open to its citizens. When the Office educates the public and issues its decisions, both government and citizens must have respect for its functions. For that reason, all things relating to the Office, including appointments, must be consistent and fair. Anything else diminishes the Office, threatens its ability to perform its vital function, and weakens Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law.
We urge the administration and legislators 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.
About the PNA:
The PNA, founded in 1925, is the nonprofit trade association for print and digital news media in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Its mission is to advance the business interests of Pennsylvania news media companies and to promote a free and independent press. It has more than 300 newspaper and media members, including daily, weekly, and college newspapers and online publications. To learn more, visit http://panewsmedia.org/.