The Commonwealth Court has determined that Gov. Tom Wolf did not need to have cause for removing the former chairman of the School Reform Commission from his post.
An en banc panel of the court ruled Monday that nothing in the Public School Code establishing the SRC indicated that the chairman’s position is a separate public office, rather than an at-will appointee of the governor. The ruling sustained Wolf’s preliminary objections to the case and dismissed Bill Green’s petition seeking to be reinstated as chairman.
“Section 696 bestows no ‘duties’ whatsoever on the SRC chair, let alone duties which are ‘grave’ or ‘important,’” Judge Joseph Cosgrove, who wrote the court’s unanimous opinion, said. “Likewise, there is no statutory suggestion that the SRC chair performs any ‘function’ in addition to his or her underlying roles as an SRC member, nor does s/he serve ‘for a definite term’ as chair. In this light, there is no support for the argument that, under Section 696, the SRC chair fits the definition of office.”
Former Gov. Tom Corbett appointed Green as chair of the SRC in 2014, however, after Wolf took over the office, the opinion said, he removed Green as chairman and replaced him with Marjorie Neff. Green eventually petitioned the court asking that Neff be removed as chair, that he be reinstated, and that the court enter a declaratory judgment holding that the chair of the SRC can only be removed for cause.
Cosgrove said Green relied heavily on the state Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Arneson v. Wolf. In that case, the justices said Wolf had no authority to remove Office of Open Records executive director Erik Arneson without cause.
Cosgrove noted that the court looked to the nature of the executive director of the OOR, the purpose of the open records statute itself, its role in the government generally, its quasi-judicial functions, and the legislative intent in establishing the position. Arneson also hinged on the finding that, when the General Assembly creates a public office, it can create limitations upon a governor’s power to remove that officer, which Cosgrove said did not match the facts in Green’s case.
“The position from which petitioner was removed bears little resemblance to that of OOR executive director,” Cosgrove said. “In short, there is nothing statutorily which defines the SRC chair in any way comparable to the OOR’s executive director, thus distinguishing Arneson from any comparison to the case at hand.”
David Osborne of The Fairness Center represented Green. Osborne said that, although the court focused on the text of the statute, he had argued that legislative intent was important.
“The legislative intent was to safeguard the SRC from gubernatorial meddling,” he said. “The SRC looks to be dissolving in the next few months, but to the extent that this is precedential it’s an unfortunate ruling.”
In a statement to the press, Green said he did not plan to appeal the decision.
Kenneth Joel of the state Attorney General’s Office represented Wolf. The governor’s press office did not return a call for comment.