Tom Wolf’s Cabinet Got Schooled on Your Right to Know

New Governor is sending signals that he's really serious about transparency. But is he?

Gov. Wolf | Photo Credit: Jeff Fusco

Gov. Wolf | Photo Credit: Jeff Fusco

A governor’s first actions in office are watched closely by the media, presumably because they tell us something about their priorities.

Since Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, was inaugurated last week, he has signed a couple ethics-related executive orders. He has very publicly gone to war with the GOP by firing the chief of the state’s Office of Open Records, who was appointed by his predecessor Republican Gov. Corbett during his final days in office.

Last Wednesday, on his first full day in office, Wolf directed his senior staff and some cabinet members to attend a training on the state’s open-records law, known as the “Right-to-Know” law. Wolf himself also underwent the training.

The action, though a relatively quiet one, is being applauded by open government advocates.

Terry Mutchler, former executive director of the Office of Open Records, led the training.

“Quite candidly, it’s an incredible moment in Pennsylvania history,” says Mutchler, “for an incoming governor to ensure in those valuable first hours that his cabinet understood the nuts and bolts of the state’s primary access law.”

Mutchler says she was never asked by former Govs. Corbett or Rendell to train their cabinet members, though she served as the state’s open records czar while they were both in office.

Corrina Vecsey Wilson, executive director of the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition, also praised Wolf for the training.

“We thought that was tremendous,” she says. “What a great way to start an administration, with a note of transparency and commitment to access.”

But to some open government advocates, Wolf took one step back after taking two steps forward when he terminated Erik Arneson, the executive director of the Office of Open Records.

Wolf says he fired Arneson in order to protect the integrity of the Office of Open Records. The Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition, however, says Wolf’s move is a threat to the office’s independence.

Wilson, the coalition’s executive director, says Wolf showed a commitment to government transparency on the campaign trail and as former revenue secretary of Pennsylvania. She says she is optimistic that he’ll come around to the group’s point of view on Arneson’s firing.

“We’re certainly not interpreting this as any dark storm cloud or red flag,” she says. “We continue to believe this is just a misunderstanding of the Right-to-Know law, which is admittedly really complicated.”

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