Handoffs at Auditor General, Office of Open Records, showed government at its best | Opinion

Pennsylvania Auditor General Tim DeFoor, a Dauphin County Republican, gives his inaugural address on Jan. 19, 2021 in Harrisburg. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

By Benjamin Pontz

 It’s not all bad. Indeed, the first three weeks of 2021 have had distinct echoes of the tumult and terror of 2020, but in the past week, I have been struck by how four Pennsylvania public officials demonstrated that devoted public servants remain in government and that, sometimes, partisan differences need not be an impediment to good governance. 

On Tuesday, Republican Timothy DeFoor was sworn in to succeed Democrat Eugene DePasquale as Pennsylvania’s elected auditor general.

And last week, DePasquale’s former chief of staff, Liz Gerloff Wagenseller, replaced former GOP state Senate staffer Erik Arneson at the helm of Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records, the agency that administers Pennsylvania’s key government transparency laws. 

Surely, in both cases, the outgoing officeholders would have preferred things have gone differently.

DePasquale (who had hoped to be elected to Congress after his eight years as auditor general) campaigned for Democrat Nina Ahmad. But when Ahmad lost, he extended a hand to DeFoor; the two apparently bonded over a love of Star Wars. DePasquale encouraged his supporters to give DeFoor a chance, and DeFoor returned the favor with a public nod to his predecessor.

“They like to say the auditor general is Pennsylvania’s fiscal watchdog. Eugene, I can honestly say you were that – and so much more,” said DeFoor in his inaugural address. “You and your team have been nothing short of wonderful. Please know that when it’s my time to turn this office over to my successor, I will make sure we live up to the high standard you have set.”

Pa. row officers sworn in, bringing diversity, GOP shakeup to Harrisburg

Arneson had hoped to be reappointed to a second six-year term at the helm of the Office of Open Records, but Gov. Tom Wolf, as is his right, chose someone else. Arneson wrote Wolf a magnanimous letter, calling the next person to hold the office “in my view, the luckiest person in Pennsylvania,” and he pledged to ensure a smooth handoff to his Wagenseller, his successor. 

For her part, Wagenseller noted that she spent several hours on the phone with Arneson, praised both his work and his professionalism, and thanked him for his service. Arneson has since started a new job as spokesman for first-term Treasurer Stacy Garrity.

In both cases, the outgoing officials went out of their way to publicly praise and welcome their successors and—by the accounts of those successors—extended a hand in private to ensure a smooth transition too. The successors made a point of thanking their predecessors and pledging to build on their respective work to improve government transparency and accountability.

Of course, this is the behavior we should expect from public officials, and it is a sign of the times that it appears remarkable. But if we’ve learned anything in the past few years, it’s that the faithful execution of election results, the orderly transition of power, and the good faith effort to put the organization above the individual ought not be taken for granted.

Words matter. Symbols matter. Norms matter. 

When public officials go above and beyond to ensure continuity and avoid acrimony, it shows a respect for citizens and for democracy that transcends individuals.

DeFoor closed his inaugural address on exactly the right note.

“As we leave here today, please join me in re-committing to humble public service,” he said. “In such tumultuous times, humility seems to be in short supply.”

Humble public service. That is something to celebrate.

Too often, we ignore it when public officials make the effort to do the right thing even as we shout from the rooftops when they do the wrong thing.

Not only does this not create many incentives for politicians to do the right thing, it reinforces the notion that politicians seldom do, sapping trust in government. So, in 2021, let’s make a point of giving commendation where commendation is due.

In that vein, a hearty thank you to Eugene DePasquale, Timothy DeFoor, Erik Arneson, and Liz Gerloff Wagenseller for showing us all how it should be done.

Benjamin Pontz is a Fulbright Postgraduate Scholar studying governance and public policy at the University of Manchester. A Lancaster native, he previously reported on state and local government for WITF-FM and PA Post.