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Pa. GOP sues to reinstate open records director

HARRISBURG - Gov. Wolf got starkly different messages from the Republican-controlled chambers of the Assembly on Monday. Senate Republicans announced that they had filed suit in Commonwealth Court against the governor over his decision to fire the director of the state Office of Open Records.

Gov. Wolf (left) and Erik Arneson
Gov. Wolf (left) and Erik ArnesonRead more

HARRISBURG - Gov. Wolf got starkly different messages from the Republican-controlled chambers of the Assembly on Monday.

Senate Republicans announced that they had filed suit in Commonwealth Court against the governor over his decision to fire the director of the state Office of Open Records.

Meanwhile, newly elected House Majority Leader David Reed (R., Indiana), in his first public comments on Wolf, said he believed Republicans could find common ground with the Democrat's administration.

In the court case, lawyers speaking on behalf of ousted director Erik Arneson and the Republican caucus said the Open Records Office is quasi-judicial, and therefore Wolf was acting beyond his authority when he fired Arneson.

"If it is supposed to be a watchdog agency . . . it has to be an independent agency," said Matt Haverstick, who is representing Senate Republicans.

He said the suit seeks an emergency injunction to reinstate Arneson, who was appointed to a six-year term by Gov. Tom Corbett 10 days before Corbett left office. The hearing on the injunction was set for next Tuesday.

Wolf said he was fighting for the integrity of the office by firing Arneson.

"By removing Mr. Arneson, I am standing up against an effort to destroy the integrity of the Office of Open Records and turn it into a political operation," Wolf said in a statement. "These attempts to change the office, which exists to protect the public's right to know, are the exact reasons people distrust their state government."

Wolf said that elected leaders should be open and transparent and that Corbett's eleventh-hour appointment was "anything but open and transparent."

Wolf, who last week named the office's deputy director, Nathan Byerly, acting director, said Arneson was an at-will employee and therefore could be fired at any time.

Arneson, his attorney, and open-records advocacy groups point to the legislative intent of the open records law that established a six-year term for the director in order to overlap a gubernatorial term.

Meanwhile, in a luncheon speech to the Pennsylvania Press Club, the House majority leader struck a decidedly more welcoming tone.

Reed said he agreed with Wolf's priorities as laid out in his inauguration speech: "jobs that pay, schools that teach, and government that works."

"We want to work with the governor to bring those to the fore," said Reed.

In a 15-minute speech that covered broad ground, Reed said he wanted to eliminate "corporate welfare," find a way to reduce school property taxes, trim the size of government, and more equitably distribute education funds.

Reed also said he supported legislation to legalize medical marijuana because there are "too many children and citizens in general who could benefit."

Reed said the legislature and the new governor must address the major budget driver, public pensions, as part of the budget talks this spring.

Reed, too, weighed in on the open records controversy.

"Both sides have an argument," he said. "I understand the frustration of a last-second nomination, but Erik Arneson is uniquely qualified." Arneson is a former top aide to Senate Republicans.

Also Monday, a group advocating for open records and government transparency urged Wolf to reconsider his decision to fire Arneson.

The Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition said Wolf's move would harm the office's integrity.

The coalition says the dismissal could lead to firings by future governors who dislike the agency's rulings.