Our Opinion: Victory in transparency
An important matter of public interest has been settled, and that has to do with whether the names of candidates for appointment to unexpired terms of public office should be made public.
When the issue surfaced about five years ago, the Williamsport Sun-Gazette believed that it was common sense that those seeking public office through any means should be public about it.
When candidates for public office seek to get on the election ballot, their names become public — the voters need to know who wants to represent them — so why wouldn’t that also be true when a public office opens up mid-term and an appointment must be made? When it came to naming a replacement Lycoming County commissioner after then-Commissioner Jeff Wheeland was elected to the state House of Representatives, the county’s president judge declined to release the list of 30 people who applied. The Sun-Gazette appealed that decision through the state Office of Open Records, which agreed.
Still, the newspaper was shut out and forced to either spend what could have been an exorbitant amount of money to continue to fight the battle in court, drop the issue, or go about it in a different way.
Credit is due to Bernard A. Oravec, who was the publisher of the Sun-Gazette when this chain of events began and continued to pursue it even after leaving the newspaper at the end of last year. Oravec began to pursue the issue legislatively after Senior Judge John B. Leete dismissed the matter in August 2015, ruling that the list of candidates was not a record of the court.
Help was enlisted from the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association and state Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre County, to close the loophole that allowed the judges to keep the names private.
Efforts continued year after year but it wasn’t until recently that the state Supreme Court adopted a Rule of Judicial Administration that says that names of candidates being considered by a Common Pleas Court to fill a vacancy shall be made available to the public upon request. Without this rule, taxpayers would still be “in the dark,” as highlighted for a number of years with a daily “Community in the Dark” logo in the newspaper that counted up the number of days since being denied access to the names.
This is a victory for transparency — and for voters and taxpayers.