Wolf on open records bill he intends to veto: 'I would have voted for it too'

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch

Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday said that he would have backed legislation that aims to require his administration to process Right-to-Know Law requests during emergency declarations if he were a lawmaker.

Yet the Democrat still plans, later this week, to veto the legislation that lawmakers recently unanimously approved in both chambers.

The governor's comments came as he praised staff at York Hospital for their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, taking turns with doctors at the podium as a large crowd crammed into a tent to avoid the summer heat.

"In terms of being open, I'm fine with (the bill)," Wolf said, adding he understands the calls for transparency. "And if I were a legislator, I would have voted for it too. But it creates all kinds of problems."

Governor Tom Wolf speaks about wearing a mask during a visit WellSpan York Hospital to thank health care workers and hospital staff for their essential role in protecting Pennsylvanians during the COVID-19 pandemic, Tuesday, July 22, 2020
John A. Pavoncello photo

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The bill in question, authored by state Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, would require all agencies to fulfill and respond to Right-to-Know Law requests — including during emergency declarations such as the one earlier this year that shuttered state offices.

Most of Wolf's gripes about the bill come down to two matters.

First, it could allow the release of information, such as personal identifiable information, that is supposed to be exempted by the 2009 Right-to-Know Law and other federal guidelines. 

It would also force workers to have to enter their office buildings, even if shutdown orders are in effect, potentially putting their health at risk during future pandemics and violating the shutdown order itself, he said.

Grove, along with media advocates, on the other hand, has said a veto on the bill would be a direct blow to transparency and the intent of the Right-to-Know Law.

On Monday, Grove was joined by the legal counsel of the state's largest media advocacy organization in an attempt to change Wolf's mind.

“I’m a firm believer that there should be more scrutiny during these times," Grove said.

Grove said that with vacant state offices, it's unlikely an employee would contract COVID-19. The state could also perform daily deep cleaning similar to those conducted in the General Assembly following session days.

In addition, the Republican argued the Right-to-Know Law— along with existing federal law — provides sufficient exemptions to protect sensitive information in the first place.

Melissa Melewsky, legal counsel at the Pennsylvania News Association, agreed, adding that she and the organization support the legislation entirely.

"The law is littered with robust exemptions," Melewsky said. "So there are significant protections in the Right-to-Know Law itself.

Pennsylvania Rep. Seth Grove reads, "Where the Wild Things Are," by Maurice Sendak, during Glatfelter Memorial Library's Annual Read-a-thon event in Spring Grove, Saturday, April 6, 2019. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Grove's bill was in direct response to the Wolf administration's decision to halt processing Right-to-Know Law requests back in March — even though the Office of Open Records encouraged agencies to at least respond to pandemic-related inquiries.

On March 25, the York Dispatch filed a Right-to-Know Law request about business waivers. It was promptly told requests would not receive responses due to office closings.

It wasn't until June 5 that The York Dispatch received notification that the request was being processed, and a 30-day extension was given. 

Wolf said Tuesday that the state has since caught up on all requests.

Erik Arneson, executive director of the Office of Open Records, would not say whether he would support Grove's bill.

But his office would gladly comply, if the bill were to become law, and aid in drawing up new guidelines for how to process requests in a scenario in which state offices are shuttered, he said.

"I do think that the pandemic has revealed all of those laws need to be reviewed with an eye toward making government actions more transparent in emergency situations," Arneson said.

Republicans would need six Democrats in the Senate and 27 Democrats in the House to join them to override Wolf's veto.

Grove said he has not yet reached out to Democrats to gauge the prospects of securing those numbers. And Wolf would not say Tuesday if he was concerned about backlash from his own party for vetoing the bill.

The last time a governor in Pennsylvania vetoed legislation that had passed both chambers unanimously was in 1978 when Democratic Gov. Milton Shapp was in office, Grove said. 

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.