BY JOHN FINNERTY

CNHI HARRISBURG BUREAU

HARRISBURG — County judges won’t be able to refuse to disclose the names of candidates for vacant elected positions under a new rule announced last week by the state Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court’s rule change dictates that county judges must provide the public the name of all applicants when filling vacant positions that are normally elected.

In addition, the courts must provide the public with “any written application materials,” according to the court order.

The rule changes come after a nearly five-year campaign by the Williamsport Sun-Gazette to get county officials there to explain who applied to become a Lycoming County commissioner to fill the vacancy created when Jeff Wheeland was elected to the state House in 2014.

The Lycoming County judges appointed Jeff Rauff to fill the vacant seat.

Rauff lost his bid to retain the seat in the 2015 Republican primary when he came in third in a six-way race, according to election results posted on the Lycoming County website.

The Williamsport paper in January 2015 filed a Right-to-Know request with the county to try to get the names of the other contenders considered when Rauff was appointed, according to court documents. The county refused to turn over the names and the newspaper appealed to the state Office of Open Records. In February 2015, the Open Records office ruled in favor of the newspaper and ordered the county to turn over the records. In August, 2015, Senior Judge John B. Leete over-ruled the Office of Open Records and found that the county shouldn’t have to turn over the records, because the names of the applicants were court records and not county records. Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know law makes far fewer court records available to the public than records kept by other government agencies, said Melissa Melewsky, an attorney for the Pennsylvania Newsmedia Association.

State Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre County, repeatedly introduced legislation in the General Assembly that would have changed the law to force judges to release the names of applicants for vacant elected positions.

“When vacancies occur in locally-elected offices, they are sometimes filled by appointment through the Court of Common Pleas. I believe any records related to those influential appointments should be available to the public,” Benninghoff said in a memo to other lawmakers about his legislation. “I believe that vacancies in these offices should be filled in a manner that is both transparent and accountable,” he said.

Benninghoff most recently introduced the legislation in March as House Bill 776 but it hasn’t moved out of the judiciary committee.

With the legislation not getting traction in the General Assembly, lawmakers suggested that advocates try to get the courts to make the change administratively, said Holly Lubart, director of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Newsmedia Association.

“The courts adopted the rule rather quickly to address the issue without the need to amend the Right-to-Know law,” Lubart said. “After working on this for several years, PNA is thrilled at the positive outcome for our members and for the public.”

Without the effort of Benninghoff and the PNA, the change wouldn’t have happened, Lubart said.

“Taxpayers would still be in the dark,” she said.

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