Wolf Reluctantly Gives In On Transparency During Emergencies

Yesterday, a transparency bill requiring state and local government to continue fulfilling Right-to-Know requests under the Pa. Open Records law during emergency declarations became law without the governor’s signature.

Gov. Wolf had repeatedly threatened to veto the bill despite every Democrat and Republican in the General Assembly having voted for it. He backed off after mounting pressure from good government organizations and criticism from the news media.

The bill, now Act 77 of 2020, gives control over how state agencies respond to Right-to-Know requests during declared emergencies to the nonpartisan Office of Open Records, rather than remaining solely with the governor.

In a July 15th press conference, Wolf made his disdain for Act 77 and aggravation with the General Assembly clear, “I am for transparency and I will stack my record of transparency against the members of the General Assembly any day of the week.” In his statement on allowing the bill to become law, he continued smearing the legislation, calling it “thoughtless” and “foolish,” while contrasting his record with the General Assembly’s.

But despite Wolf’s attempt to cast Act 77 as political gamesmanship, it was not proposed out of competition between branches of government. Instead, it was a reaction to an order from Wolf that state agencies suspend responses to Right-to-Know requests during the statewide shutdown that began in March.

As Commonwealth Foundation President and CEO Charles Mitchell noted in a May op-ed, “The groundswell of opposition to Wolf’s repudiation of transparency is growing daily…By keeping citizens in the dark, Wolf has forced Pennsylvanians to question the motives behind his every decision. The lesson is clear: Transparency is never optional — not even during a crisis.”

At the heart of the controversy was the Wolf administration’s dubious business waiver system, which Wolf established to grant exemptions from his shutdown of so-called “non-life-sustaining” businesses due to the spread of COVID-19. From the beginning, his administration kept waiver records and information on how they were awarded from the public.

As local businesses told the press and their state representatives that the process was haphazard, that big box stores were allowed to open while they were kept closed, or that their competitors were often inexplicably allowed to open, discontent grew palpable.

Matt Muccitelli, owner of Park Home appliance store in Duncansville, said in an Altoona Mirror story published at the height of the shutdown, “You can’t say appliances we sell are nonessential while appliances Lowes sells are essential.”

In an interview with the news organization SpotlightPA, Michelle Crowley, president and CEO of the Carlisle Chamber of Commerce, described the system as “clear as mud.”

As an example of how the public was unable to access timely and newsworthy information, the York Dispatch recently explained the timeline of one of their Right-to-Know requests. They requested information on March 25, but by the time the Wolf administration responded on June 5, saying it would take yet another 30-days to fulfill the request, “The request was pulled because the information sought would have been outdated.”

By mid-April, legislators began responding to the outcry with subpoenas for records, committee hearings, and eventually Act 77. Pa. Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has also launched an audit of the waiver process (Pasquale is running as a Democrat for Pa.’s 10th Congressional seat).

“When put to the test during the statewide shutdown, Wolf abandoned the laws that guarantee transparency and accountability in state government, preferring instead to pull a curtain around his actions and delay publicity of his decisions,” said Commonwealth Foundation Vice President Nathan Benefield in a statement. “It is a relief to know that Gov. Wolf can be pressured into abiding the principle of transparency — a principle which he has claimed to champion.”

Indeed, Governor Wolf ran on a transparency platform and has often trumpeted his commitment to it throughout his tenure. He said in 2015, “I firmly believe that creating a government that works starts with making sure public officials are held accountable for their actions. I was hired by the people of Pennsylvania, and they deserve to know how I serve through my office.”

Leading up to Wolf’s eventual decision to give in, however, he repeatedly sought out legal excuses for rejecting the bill. Notably, he claimed it risked dissemination of personally identifiable information and information related to public safety.

Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association discredited those claims at a press conference, saying that existing exemptions dispel such risks and, “I don’t really understand the administration’s position.”

In a statement of gratitude after the bill became law, Rep. Seth Grove, the bill’s sponsor, said “This bill becoming law could not have happened without the support of all those who raised their voices in defense of an open government and the freedom of the press. I am eternally grateful for the support this law received.”

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