Court: candidates’ names should be public

The names of candidates being considered by a common pleas court to fill a vacancy shall be made available to the public upon request.

That Rule of Judicial Administration adopted by the state Supreme Court this past week followed a nearly five-year effort by the Williamsport Sun-Gazette to close a loophole in regard to candidates seeking appointment to public offices through the courts.

The effort followed an unsuccessful attempt by the newspaper to obtain the list of 30 candidates who had applied for appointment to a vacated seat on the Lycoming County Board of Commissioners.

While this ruling will not reverse past course, it will ensure that the public and media outlets will have access to the identities of people seeking appointment to public office in the future.

“This is a huge win for transparency,” Holly Lubart, director of government affairs for Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association (PNA), said. “After working on this issue for several years, PNA is thrilled at the positive outcome for our members and for the public.

“Without the persistent efforts of (state) Rep. (Kerry) Benninghoff pushing to get this done, and PNA, this change would not have happened and taxpayers would still be in the dark. From this point forward, when the courts fill vacancies in elected office, the public has a right to access all candidates’ names and application materials.”

After former commissioner Jeff Wheeland was elected to a state House seat, the task of appointing an interim commissioner went to county judges, who are responsible for appointing people to fill vacancies for county commissioner between elections.

Jeff Rauff was appointed to the seat in December 2014 following a private process by county judges.

In January 2015, the newspaper attempted to obtain the list of more than 30 applicants through the state’s Right-to-Know Law, but was denied.

The only records possessed by judicial agencies subject to the Right-to-Know Law are financial records, and the request was sent to the office of the county commissioners, even though county President Judge Nancy Butts was the one who solicited and received applications.

The request was denied, but later overturned by the state’s Open Records Office after the Sun-Gazette appealed.

The case then went to Lycoming County Court, with visiting Senior Judge John Leete of Potter County ruling that the commissioners’ office did not have to release the records because they were in the possession of the county court, a judicial agency.

The Sun-Gazette decided not to appeal the case.

Bernard A. Oravec, who was Sun-Gazette publisher at the time, said it would have been an uphill battle to win the case and costly for the newspaper to take the issue all the way to the Supreme Court.

“We took the first step of taking it to court and we lost,” he said. “It cost us about $10,000 in legal fees. At that point, we decided to no longer pursue it through the lower courts.”

During the disagreement, the Sun-Gazette published a running total of the number of days since the request for the names had been declined under the headline “community in the dark.” Between this effort and today, 1,724 days have passed.

However, not wanting to let the issue die, the decision was made to pursue the case legislatively, and the assistance of Benninghoff and PNA was enlisted.

“I was very happy with the outcome because I think it’s something the voters deserve. To hide candidate names behind something like judicial deliberations didn’t make sense,” Oravec said. “It’s a big victory for voters and taxpayers statewide.”

The rule specifically states: “When a court of common pleas is filling a vacancy to an elected office under a statutory duty, the following procedures shall apply: (a) The court shall receive applications from any interested candidates of a position pursuant to a deadline established by the court. (b) The names of all candidates under consideration and any written application materials submitted by any candidate are public information and shall be made available to any member of the public upon request.”

The rule becomes effective 30 days after publication in the Pennsylvania Bulletin in accordance with the Pennsylvania Code.