by Lowman S. Henry | December 03, 2007

Boards, commissions, bureaucrats forget who is boss

The audacity of non-elected state functionaries in Pennsylvania appears to have no limits. It is amazing the degree to which power – delegated by elected officials – to various boards, commissions and agencies goes to the heads of those hired to implement various programs. In very short order all too many begin to think they have a God-given right to the job they hold, and even those elected by we the people to govern on our behalf have no right to question their actions.

In recent weeks two more state agencies have over-stepped the bounds of both their authority and propriety: the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.

The turnpike commission is engaged in a pitched battle with Congressman John Peterson over the proposed tolling of Interstate 80. The turnpike wants to enlarge its empire by implementing fare collection on the interstate. Peterson understands that tolling I-80 would have dire and deleterious consequences for the economy of northern Pennsylvania.

Congressman Peterson (an elected representative) is working hard to prevent the tolling of I-80 and has become public enemy number one at the turnpike commission. The congressman recently asked for a list of lobbying and public relations contracts as well as salary information on turnpike commission employees. The turnpike commission (not elected by anybody) responded by demanding that Congressman Peterson prove he is a resident of the state by providing them with a copy of his drivers’ license.

That took unmitigated gall. First, the information the Congressman is seeking is public information and if this state had any sort of an Open Records Law with teeth in it such data would (and should) be readily available to anyone who asks. Second, John Peterson has held public office for decades – first as a state senator and now as a Congressman – and his residency is not at issue. Third, who in blue blazes at the turnpike commission has an ego so out of control as to ask such a thing? Whoever it – regardless of the loftiness of their position – should be fired forthwith.

The second example of bureaucratic arrogance is provided courtesy of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. It seems the House Republican Policy Committee (comprised of elected representatives) scheduled a hearing to gain information from the board to learn more about the criteria it uses for determining the financial stability of applicants. The board (not elected by anybody) refused to attend. State Representative Doug Reichley correctly pointed out that: “Instead of instilling confidence, the Gaming Board’s refusal to explain itself only strengthens the public’s concern.” Amen.

Unfortunately, all of this is nothing new. It took a court ruling to get Penn State University to release salary details, including that of legendary football coach Joe Paterno. Penn State receives millions in taxpayer subsidies each year, but refused to be accountable and transparent to the taxpayers. I had at first assumed they were fighting release of Coach Paterno’s salary information because it is embarrassingly high, which turned out not to be the case. Thus, the only reason for fighting to conceal the figure is an unfortunate mindset that the public does not have a right to know.

All of this pales, however, when you take into consideration the actions of the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA) which aggressively fought news media efforts to obtain information on agency spending relative to board retreats and junkets. After a lengthy legal battle, the information was made public. It revealed embarrassing array of excessive spending on perks and privileges. The degree of rot and the intensity of efforts by the entrenched PHEAA staff and board to prevent the public from knowing how a public agency was spending public money has come to symbolize the arrogance of the non-elected.

While most calls for “reform” in Pennsylvania have justly focused on the General Assembly, it is also clear that our government’s appointed boards, agencies and commissions are out of control. It is time our elected representatives reign in these ego maniacal monsters while there still might be some chance of holding them accountable.