The placeholder: Meet the man Wolf taps to (temporarily) hold key appointments

In less than four months, the top staffer in Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration has been nominated to serve on 28 different state-appointed boards.

(Commonwealth Media Services)

(Commonwealth Media Services)

Spotlight PA is an independent, non-partisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. A version of this story originally appeared in our free weekly newsletter.

On paper, Thomas Yablonski Jr. is a man of many talents.

In less than four months, the top staffer in Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration has been nominated to serve on 28 different state-appointed boards, overseeing everything from podiatry to cosmetology to workers compensation. And that doesn’t include his appointments in a dozen counties across the state to be a sheriff, treasurer, magisterial judge, and coroner — sometimes simultaneously.

In reality, however, he’s a well-traveled political placeholder.

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In Pennsylvania, the governor has the power to appoint roughly 1,000 people to dozens of boards and positions across state government, including his own cabinet. That number also includes appointments a governor can make when there is a vacancy in county courts and other elected offices, Wolf’s office said.

The power is not intended to be absolute, as appointments must be approved by the state Senate. And there are strict timing requirements that any administration must follow when making nominations. All of that leads to placeholders like Yablonski.

When a vacancy occurs, governors have 90 days to nominate someone. If that doesn’t happen, the seat remains vacant until the end of their term, according to administration officials. But governors are loath to give up that power, and instead turn to people to keep the seat warm — on paper only.

Sometimes, particularly toward the end of a governor’s second term, it can take more than 90 days to find someone for a post. So they turn to people like Yablonski, who are just names on paper and are never intended to fill those positions, to fulfill the 90-day requirement.

Once a suitable candidate is found, the placeholder’s name is recalled. Given his job, it is little surprise that Yablonski is a favorite for playing the placeholder. As a deputy secretary in the administration, he helps oversee, among other things, the executive nomination and appointment process. He did not respond to a request for an interview.

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His latest nominations — 45 in all — occurred just since October 2020.

Just this month, Wolf submitted Yablonski’s name for a dozen new positions, including the high-profile job of state victim advocate. The last person to hold that title, Jennifer Storm, was not reconfirmed by the Senate, and the administration is now interviewing candidates to replace her.

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