Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf said Thursday he would void 28 last-minute nominations made by his Republican predecessor, Gov. Tom Corbett, as well as the “midnight appointment” of Erik Arneson as director of the state’s Office of Open Records.
Arneson, a former top aide in the state Senate GOP, was selected to run the OOR less than two weeks before Wolf’s inauguration.
Wolf criticized the appointment at the time.
“We need to make sure that every Pennsylvanian has reason to trust the government that serves them and midnight appointments, or eleventh-hour appointments, deteriorate the public’s trust in government,” said Jeff Sheridan, spokesman for the governor.
He said the decision has nothing to do with Arneson’s qualifications, and that Wolf’s problem “was with the process in which this took place.”
Arneson was sworn in last week to serve a six-year term. He helped draft the law creating the OOR while working for the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware.
The quasi-judicial agency decides appeals for document requests. The law creating the office prescribes no process for removing directors.
Wolf said he would do a national search for a new director. In the meantime, the governor named Nathan Byerly to the role. Byerly is the agency’s longtime deputy director and, like Arneson, a Republican.
The announcement brought an end to what have appeared to be the start of amiable relations between the Wolf administration and the Republican-controlled Legislature.
In a written statement, Republican Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman said it shows that Wolf “places ideology above qualifications.” Corman also suggested Wolf’s actions would be challenged, referring to Arneson’s “attempted removal.”
The Thursday afternoon announcement was said to be effective immediately, but hours later, Arneson was still at his desk at the Office of Open Records. He likened the attempted retraction to a “nuclear assault on the independence of this office.”
“It was designed to be a six-year appointment, precisely so that a governor could not play these kinds of games,” said Arneson. “What this precedent would mean is that if the next director comes in here and makes decisions Gov. Wolf doesn’t like, then he could just fire that person and move on to another one, and another one.”
Sheridan said Wolf “would not do that.”
Terry Mutchler, former director of the OOR, said she supports Wolf’s decision to remove Arneson, replace him with Byerly, and search for a new director.
“I think it’s also fair to say that nobody was happy with the processes that unfolded in the waning moments of the Corbett administration,” Mutchler said. “The whole process was off… so, for me to pass off a leadership torch under a cloudy process I think did undercut the Office of Open Records, which is charged with openness.”
“I guess it’s a matter of what’s going to prevail,” said Mutchler. “The eleventh hour or the first hour?”