Wolf, the transparency governor, needs to get serious about his commitment to openness | Mark O’Keefe

Politicians talk a lot about being open and transparent so taxpayers can see how their money is being spent.
However, open government is never easy, and putting the concept into practice can be difficult at times.

Consider the situation facing Gov. Tom Wolf. Shortly after he was elected governor in 2015, Wolf unveiled his “Government that Works” Reform Plan.

“Since taking office, I’ve taken significant steps forward in making our government more open and transparent,” Wolf said at the time. “However, special interests still wield too much power and influence in Harrisburg, which is one of the reasons why it has been and continues to be, broken. We need to take on the special interests and status quo, and that starts with passing a ban on gifts for all public officials, contracting reform, increasing lobbying oversight, and increasing transparency across all of government.”

But Wolf is increasingly coming under fire for not being transparent enough with the Covid-19 crises.

Wolf ordered state offices closed to the public on March 16. Since then, most Right-to-Know requests have not been processed.

Many of the requests are coming from the media and Republican lawmakers, concerning the granting of waivers to Wolf’s order shutting down non-essential businesses. Many business owners have complained they were denied waivers while other similar businesses received them.

Gov. Tom Wolf ran as a champion of government transparency. The COVID-19 pandemic is putting that to the test.

The Department of Community and Economic Development which processed those waivers said it can’t release information about which businesses did and did not receive waivers until state offices reopen.

Last week, the Pennsylvania state House unanimously passed a bill mandating that state agencies respond to Right-to-Know requests during emergencies. Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know law allows members of the public to request records from any government agency, which usually has five days to respond.

Speaking to journalists later, Wolf claimed that his administration has operated as transparently as possible during the pandemic.

“I draw a distinction between transparency and following certain rules … that we might not have the capacity to do during this pandemic,” Wolf said.

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star reported that the policy has come under fierce criticism not only from GOP lawmakers but also from open-government advocates.

“The approach Pennsylvania is taking is absolutely backward,” said Gunita Singh, legal fellow at Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a nonprofit that provides legal services to journalists. “They are weakening the open records law in a time of crisis and anxiety, which is precisely the time we need to be strengthening these laws.”

“Transparency is a critical function of government, and the main facilitator of transparency is the Right to Know law,” Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, told the Capital-Star.

The bill now moves to the state Senate, which is expected to pass the measure. It remains to be seen if there will be enough votes to override Wolf’s expected veto.

Meanwhile, Republicans in the state Senate subpoenaed the Wolf administration for documents related to the waiver process. Wolf rejected the subpoena, but he did release a list of thousands of businesses that received approvals to reopen amid the shutdown.

Wolf admin. releases partial list of business shutdown waivers

But the information didn’t include the criteria by which applications for waivers were approved or rejected, falling far short of what had been requested by legislative Republicans and news organizations.

On Monday, Senate Republicans filed papers in Commonwealth Court, seeking to force Wolf to release the information.

Wolf did note that his office is cooperating with an investigation by Auditor General Eugene DePasquale into the waiver process to see if any changes or improvements are needed.

Wolf, however, isn’t the only Harrisburg official being questioned about transparency. Earlier this year, Spotlight PA, which is a partnership between the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and PennLive/Patriot-News, requested official expense reports from lawmakers about their various meetings with their staffs and constituents.

The specific records request at issue was a 27-page expense report for the office of the Senate president Pro Tempore, the highest-ranking legislator in the chamber.

Both the Senate and House cited “legislative privilege” in redacting parts of thousands of pages of expenses provided through Right-to-Know requests.

“Legislative privilege,” said Megan Martin, the top open records official in the Senate, “protects conversations that could ultimately result in the drafting and passage of legislation.”

Martin, who also serves as the  secretary and parliamentarian of the Senate, added that denying the protection, “renders the privilege meaningless and arguably dilutes the effectiveness of the legislature.”

The news organizations had argued the “privilege” was applied too broadly in this case and to financial records that are considered public under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law.

House Republicans later reversed course and released all the information without redactions. House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, vowed to never again produce expense records with “excessive redactions.”

“We should always err on the side of public transparency. We all answer to our constituents for every vote we make and every dollar we spend,” said Cutler, a Lancaster County Republican.

While some in state government struggle with transparency and open government, it’s good to know at least one Harrisburg official knows their true meaning.

Capital-Star opinion contributor, Mark O’Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., is the former editorial page editor of the Uniontown Herald-Standard. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.