Can a closed Capitol be transparent? Yes, say experts

The Pennsylvania Capitol building. (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

Keeping the government open and honest has been a calling for Terry Mutchler.

“It’s very difficult for a former journalist to grant implicit trust,” Mutchler said Thursday, who left her reporter’s notebook behind to become the state’s first open records chief. She is now a media law attorney in Harrisburg.

But she and other transparency advocates still greeted a new policy closing off the Capitol to the public, in response to COVID-19 virus, as a necessary sacrifice for a functioning government.

“Given the seriousness of the situation we’re in and the fact that floor activity can be so easily broadcast … it doesn’t give me any sense of concern,” that the Capitol will be closed to public gatherings, Erik Arneson, current head of the state Open Records Office and a former top Senate GOP aide, told the Capital-Star.

The state Department of General Services announced on Thursday that all public events at the Governor’s Mansion and the state Capitol complex in Harrisburg would be cancelled until further notice starting Friday, March 13. 

That same day, Gov. Tom Wolf announced that the state was closing schools, community centers and entertainment venues in Montgomery County to contain the coronavirus. For the rest of the state Wolf suggested that all gatherings of more than 250 people be postponed.

There are at least 22 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Pennsylvania, all in counties on the eastern edge of the state.

But Pennsylvania lawmakers returning to Harrisburg, likely to consider a suite of public health proposals, means up to 253 lawmakers, plus staff, will be roaming the Capitol’s committee rooms and hallways.

During a busy session day, hundreds more, from students on tours to lobbyists taking meetings, could also be in the building.

Under the new rules, state employees or individuals, such as journalists, with key card access will be able to enter the Capitol, according to the Department of General Services announcement.

Wolf said Thursday that it’s up to leaders in the House and Senate to postpone their session days, which are scheduled to run Monday, March 16 through Wednesday, March 19. 

Officials in both chambers affirmed that they planned to stay open.

“The Senate is committed to working with the Governor and House leaders to address COVID-19. Discussions are ongoing as things continue to change, however, at this time, the Senate continues to operate normally,” Jenn Kocher, spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said.

Other lawmakers weren’t as pleased with the thought of entering the bustling building.

But the new restrictions on access seem to run counter to the state’s open meetings laws, which proclaim that it is “the right of the public to be present at all meetings of agencies,” including the General Assembly.

One group that will be left outside the building because of the rule are Harrisburg’s lobbyists. 

In a statement, Peter Trufahnestock, president of the Pennsylvania Association for Government Relations, a trade group for lobbyists, said that the group understands “the abundance of caution being exhibited by the Wolf Administration and General Assembly.”

He added that “we will recommend to our members that they stay away from the Capitol and contact officials and staff electronically for the time being.”

These electronic avenues, whether an online live stream, a dial-in code, or cable news videos, comforted the transparency advocates, too.

Mutchler agreed that public health concerns had, rightly so, moved to the forefront.

But “while the pandemic has to take precedence, it’s not a permission slip for the government to avoid transparency,” Mutchler said.

With the Capitol closed, she said, the government must not only offer new routes for transparency, but make sure they work.

For example, if a live stream fails, then the meeting should stop. When the stream is restored, lawmakers should then explain on air why it broke.

While a bad video feed or a late addition to an agenda might stir fears of malefesance, Mutchler said that her experience with government was one of people who want to make a difference and aren’t “looking to play games with the law,” they are hoping to help people.

“I wouldn’t hand over trust completely,” Mutchler said, but “I would hand over good faith.” 

Capital-Star Staff Reporter Elizabeth Hardison contributed reporting.