The Community Connection

Questions of transparen­cy in Pennsylvan­ia


Government transparen­cy and the public right to know is a standard to which we hold public officials accountabl­e. Recent examples in Pennsylvan­ia illustrate the consequenc­es when that standard fails.

Earlier this month, the discovery that the Pennsylvan­ia Department of State had failed to publicly advertise a proposed constituti­onal amendment referendum to extend legal recourse for victims of sexual abuse resulted in the amendment proposal becoming ineligible for a statewide ballot. The error set back the amendment process by more than a year.

The administra­tive oversight caused then-Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar to resign and caused victims of childhood sexual assaults renewed pain at the delay in justice. The error, discovered by SpotlightP­A reporting, was a painful example of the damage caused by failing to adhere to the rules of public notice.

But in the wake of that discovery, Gov. Tom Wolf “declined to provide additional details of exactly what occurred, how it happened, who else was responsibl­e for the error, and whether any other disciplina­ry action or terminatio­ns had resulted,” SpotlightP­A reporter Angela Couloumbis reported.

The department did not respond to several requests for informatio­n about which offices and staffers within the department were in charge of advertisin­g constituti­onal amendments, including four proposed changes that the agency properly advertised within the past year, Spotlight reported.

“A spokespers­on for Wolf, a Democrat who has frequently said transparen­cy is a core priority, said the governor would work with the inspector general to make the results of the inquiry public. It is not known how long the investigat­ion will take,” Spotlight reported.

In our view, the failure to divulge the details — and future remedy — for this error constitute a violation of upholding transparen­cy. The amendment advertisem­ent isn’t the only failure of the Wolf administra­tion on this front.

According to informatio­n provided by the Pennsylvan­ia NewsMedia Associatio­n, the administra­tion also failed to properly advertise public hearings regarding the proposed rulemaking of the Environmen­tal Quality Board’s CO2 Budget Trading Program, also known as the Regional Greenhouse

Gas Initiative.

“The Air Pollution Control Act requires public notice to be provided ‘in newspapers of general circulatio­n in the region of the Commonweal­th affected’,” wrote PNA President Brad Simpson in a letter to DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell, noting since this affects all Pennsylvan­ians, hearings needed to be advertised in all 67 counties.

Among the counties where advertisem­ents were not placed were Montgomery and Chester counties.

“Governor Wolf states that ‘Climate change is the most critical environmen­tal threat confrontin­g the world, and power generation is one of the biggest contributo­rs to greenhouse gas emissions. Given the urgency of the climate crisis facing Pennsylvan­ia and the entire planet, the commonweal­th must continue to take concrete, economical­ly sound and immediate steps to reduce emissions. RGGI will give us that opportunit­y to better protect the health and safety of our citizens,’” Simpson wrote.

“In Executive Order 201907, Governor Wolf explicitly directed the Department to conduct a robust public outreach effort while developing this rulemaking,” the DEP website states. “... But DEP placed only a few notices and held virtual only public hearings both of which may have excluded many Pennsylvan­ians,” Simpson wrote.

“Public notices inform the community about life-changing government actions before those actions are taken,” he continued. “In-person hearings allow Pennsylvan­ians a chance to witness and participat­e in the formation of public policy.”

Simpson cited the statistics which show that online-only processes eliminate access for nearly 25% of Pennsylvan­ians who do not use the Internet.

“Newspapers are the primary channel for communicat­ing matters of such critical public importance to those residents,” he wrote.

Our challenge to the Wolf administra­tion and to all government agencies — local and state — remains steadfast as a commitment to transparen­cy and an informed public. These recent mistakes are egregious in their effects; compoundin­g them with a failure to disclose details and remedies is inexcusabl­e. The citizens of Pennsylvan­ia deserve better.

This newspaper is a member of Pennsylvan­ia NewsMedia Associatio­n profession­al organizati­on for news media.

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