‘I’m trying to be transparent,’ Wolf says as his administration rejects bill to restart public records law

The governor championed government transparency during his campaigns, but now that commitment is being tested.

  • Cynthia Fernandez/Spotlight PA

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HARRISBURG — The Wolf administration does not support a bill that would give the public and press access to government records during a disaster declaration, despite the measure passing the state House this week with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Agencies under Gov. Tom Wolf’s purview, including the Department of Health, stopped processing public records requests in mid-March, as offices closed in an effort to mitigate the coronavirus. That means the government can operate largely in secret, with the public having little recourse to force disclosure.

Most notably, the administration has refused numerous requests, including by Spotlight PA and The Philadelphia Inquirer, to release documents related to its controversial process of granting waivers to allow certain businesses to reopen during the statewide shutdown.

“The administration’s response to the pandemic has been opaque at best and raised a lot of questions,” said Rep. Seth Grove (R., York), who authored the bill, which would require state departments to continue processing Right-To-Know Law requests during a disaster declaration.

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The measure passed Tuesday with near unanimous support, garnering the support of all but one lawmaker, who was absent. The bill had previously advanced from a committee with no support from Democrats. It now goes to the Senate for consideration.

Asked Tuesday about the issue, Wolf — who positioned himself as a champion of government transparency during his campaigns for governor — said staff who process public records requests have been laid off or are “addressing the challenges” created by COVID-19.

“I’m trying to be transparent, and we’re focused on doing everything we can to keep people informed as to how we’re doing,” Wolf said. “I draw a distinction between transparency and following specific rules for things that are mandated that we might not have the capacity to do while we’re in this emergency.”

Lyndsay Kensinger, a spokesperson for Wolf, said the administration does not support the bill, but did not specify if the governor would veto it.

“Since the first confirmed case, the administration has maintained consistent contact with both state and local officials and will continue to do so throughout this public health crisis,” she said.

Kensinger also noted that the executive branch is “fully subject” to the open records statute “unlike the legislature,” which exempted lawmakers’ emails and other records when writing the law.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania supports Grove’s bill, saying in a statement that transparency is “more, not less, critical during emergency situations.”

“Most importantly, the bill resolves the intolerable current situation where the Right-to-Know Law is effectively suspended for as long as this disaster carries on, which means that for months, the public has no recourse to request information from commonwealth agencies that remain physically closed,” the statement said.

The Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association (of which Spotlight PA is a member) also supports the measure.

“Especially in times of crisis, government should be as transparent as possible,” association spokesperson Holly Lubart said. “The media and the public are demanding answers from the Wolf administration. While we realize this is an unprecedented time, the Wolf administration’s stance on not answering Right-to-Know Law requests is problematic from the media perspective, particularly since we do not know how long this pandemic will last.”

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The Department of Health has at times been slow to disclose information on COVID-19 cases and deaths that other states made available. It published race and zip code data on cases after mounting pressure from the public and media outlets, and has so far rejected calls to release a list of nursing homes that have confirmed cases of the virus.

The Department of Community and Economic Development has also failed to release information about which businesses it exempted from a statewide shutdown order. The waivers have been one of the most contentious aspects of Wolf’s response to the pandemic because of perceived inconsistencies and a lack of transparency about how and why they were issued.

The Wolf administration has said it will release information on the process, but has not provided a timeframe.

In a rare move, the Republican-controlled Senate issued a subpoena to the administration for the documents last week, directing Wolf and Department of Community and Economic Development Secretary Dennis Davin to produce the documents by May 8.

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