House candidates weigh in on government transparency

It won’t be until fall that candidates for the 83rd and 84th Legislative Districts will battle it out for seats in Harrisburg, but there will be races in both districts.

For the May primary, however, there is little room for surprise with only one candidate each seeking the Democrat or the Republican nomination in each district.

Incumbent Rick Mirabito will seek the Democratic nomination in the 83rd Legislative District, which includes the city, DuBoistown, South Williamsport and Armstrong, Hepburn, Loyalsock, Lycoming, Old Lycoming, and Susquehanna townships. Seeking the Republican nomination is County Commissioner Jeff Wheeland.

Mirabito, who graduated from law school at Boston College, is married with a 4-year-old son. He is the state House representative to the Center for Rural Pennsylvania and is seeking his fourth term.

Wheeland graduated from Williamsport Area Community College in 1977 with a degree in business management and is serving his sixth year as county commissioner. As such, he is on more than a dozen committees and has served on the Governor’s Marcellus Shale Commission.

In the 84th, incumbent Garth Everett will seek the Republican nomination, while Kristen Marie Hayes of Jersey Shore will seek the Democratic nomination.

That district includes Hughesville, Jersey Shore, Montgomery, Montoursville, Picture Rocks and Salladasburg and Anthony, Bastress, Brady, Brown, Cascade, Clinton, Cogan House, Cummings, Eldred, Fairfield, Franklin, Gamble, Jackson, Jordan, Lewis, Limestone, McHenry, McIntyre, McNett, Mifflin, Mill Creek, Moreland, Muncy Creek, Muncy, Nippenose, Penn, Piatt, Pine, Plunketts Creek, Porter, Shrewsbury, Upper Fairfield, Washington, Watson, Wolf and Woodward townships.

Hayes was born in Clinton County, grew up in Lock Haven and ultimately settled in Jersey Shore. She founded a non-profit organization, Protecting the Sanctity of All Life Movement. She and her husband have three children.

Everett graduated from Penn State, which he attended on an ROTC scholarship. After serving in the Air Force for 20 years, Everett went to law school in 1997 and began practicing in Muncy. He is seeking his fifth term.

Q: Do you think that the Legislature is transparent enough? If not, what needs to change?

MIRABITO: “It’s extremely important, because that’s the only way a democracy functions. We still have some that are excluded from the Right to Know laws, like Penn State and some other state-related entities, but I see the quid pro quo for use of government money being transparency and accountability. For example, a lot of nonprofit organizations get money from the state or the federal government, and they file an audit, but there’s a difference between that and a detailed analysis of exactly where the money goes. I think we need to broaden Right to Know.”

WHEELAND: “In my experience, I think that state-level transparency is satisfactory. We’ve worked with (Rep.) Everett, (Sen.) Yaw, (Rep.) Mirabito, who have been very open with Lycoming County, especially with businesses. But because transparency is crucial, it’s something that I would strive to keep at a level that is the most beneficial to both legislators and constituents. If there are issues, I would be interested in identifying them and seeking a resolution to them.”

HAYES: “No, I don’t. What needs to change are the legislators – most people don’t have time to read every piece of important legislation, especially that which affects all of us, so what they perceive is only what they read in e-mails or news articles or comments that the legislators themselves make. What legislators say is always framed in a way to appeal to their base, but it’s very often worded in confusing language, a ‘devil is in the details’ kind of thing.”

EVERETT: “I think we’re doing better. We’re trying to find the right balance between being transparent and excessive administrative overhead expense, because it’s taxpayer money that is used for Right to Know requests and such. I came into the state House in 2007, after the 2006 Legislature had passed a big pay raise for themselves, and they did it at 2 in the morning on the last day of session before they adjourned for the summer, which is the opposite of transparent. So in the last eight years, we’ve been trying to make government more transparent, and not just at the state level, at the federal level as well. It’s not perfect yet, but I think we’re making progress.”

Q: Do you think there is a connection between government transparency and government accountability?

MIRABITO: “Absolutely. I’ve run for eight years on the slogan, ‘transparency and accountability.’ People often blame problems on a lack of knowledge, but we all have to be accountable and take responsibility – even the public.”

WHEELAND: “I speak from my experience in county government, where we are very open to any constituents, any news media organizations. We readily allow access to our staff. No citizens that I know of have ever been turned away from accessing information, and we have an open-door policy, especially with records. One of the objectives of this board of commissioners is getting documents online so that not only are there permanent records available, but also so folks can access them via the internet.”

HAYES: “Absolutely. We can’t hold them accountable if we don’t know what they’re doing. People generally get the side of the story that has the letter behind it – meaning Republicans tend to get news from Republicans, Democrats tend to get news from Democrats – but the reality is that there are two sides to every story and the truth is somewhere in the middle.”

EVERETT: “Absolutely. The more people know about what we’re doing, the better off we all are. I wish people cared more about it sometimes, instead of just what they learn from an email alert they get or something. But ultimately, the more open it can be, the better off we all are.”

Q: Are you familiar with the “open data” movement? Do you believe that government agencies should put most documents/information online, so that interested citizens don’t have to make requests for public records?

MIRABITO: “I think that when you have something like a Right to Know law, you’re starting with the assumption that people don’t have a right to know, and that all they get to know is what they file a request for, when it should be the opposite: that the government is an open book. People have a responsibility to educate themselves, and if the information was available, people would take more of an interest in it. Many elected officials see their role as managing the electorate and public opinion, which isn’t the case. Although, I think that privacy for constituents who come to see their legislators is important, I want that for people who come to me with an issue or a concern.”

WHEELAND: “I certainly believe in the transparency issue, but my concern with making everything available is twofold: the first one is the cost in putting these documents online and managing their accessibility. We have to look at cost versus accessibility: if it can be better done through a Right to Know request that will isolate specific information, that may be the least expensive way to go for the taxpayer. To electronically capture a million records, and you only really need a small percentage, how smart of an expenditure on the part of the taxpayer is it? My other concern is when companies or politicians use Right to Know requests to capture documents and then use the information for political campaigns, for the benefit of a particular candidate.”

HAYES: “I would love for that to happen. When the Right To Know laws first passed, I would go, on a volunteer basis, to communities when government had failed the residents and taught them how to fill out the right forms and how to get the maximum amount of information they were looking for. Unless you know what you’re doing and what you’re looking for, a Right To Know request is not successful, and they’re being denied more often now. I support everything being made available to the public, and that includes internal memos as well, from government agency to legislator, from legislator to legislator – everything.”

EVERETT: “I don’t think that internal emails and such should be available – we’re always discussing things, and maybe someone is playing devil’s advocate for a certain situation, and out of context that would be confusing or even damaging. Wanting to see a draft of a bill or something, I think that makes sense, but I don’t think that exposing everything works, and that’s the balance we’re trying to find.”