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Tenacious lawyer heads Pa. Office of Open Records

A former Associated Press reporter, Terry Mutchler is strong advocate of open gov’t.

Terry Mutchler, executive director for the Office of Open Records, discusses implementation of state’s Right-to-Know Law.

AP PHOTO

HARRISBURG — In high school, Terry Mutchler’s tenacity could be measured in broken field-hockey sticks, including the time she broke her wooden stick in the heat of a game and had to use one belonging to her coach.

“She broke that one” too, her mother, Star Mutchler recalled — but she broke it scoring the winning goal for her team.

Mutchler will need all the toughness she can muster as she leads the implementation of Pennsylvania’s new Right-to-Know Law, which takes effect Jan. 1.

“She’s a go-getter and she speaks what she thinks is right,” Mrs. Mutchler, 78, said of her 42-year-old daughter during a telephone interview from her Stroudsburg home.

Already, Mutchler has displayed a willingness to break ranks with her boss, Gov. Ed Rendell, on politically hot issues.

For example, she advocated the disclosure of confidential lists of legislators picked by party leaders to share hundreds of millions of dollars a year for pet projects in their districts. She also called for barring public agencies from charging extra for the labor involved in redacting nonpublic information from public records.

On both sides of the open-records debate, Mutchler has impressed people with her energy, work ethic and grasp of the legal complexities that confront her fledgling Office of Open Records.

Since last summer, she has led scores of workshops across the state to educate public officials, journalists, lawyers and others about the law.

“She sees both what the agencies’ concerns and issues are, (and) she knows what the reporters” want, said Elam Herr, director of the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, which speaks for 1,455 townships.

Craig Staudenmaier, a Harrisburg lawyer who specializes in media law, called Mutchler “fair-minded but steadfast, in that what’s public is public and what’s not is not.”

“I keep pinching myself to make sure it’s not a dream,” he said of her appointment.

Passionate, intense and no-nonsense, Mutchler has firm ideas about her new job. She tells people in government and in the news media that her office will evenly enforce the law, but makes clear she will err on the side of openness and won’t tolerate attempts to end-run the new requirements.

“I genuinely believe that this government does not belong to the government. It belongs to citizens,” she said in an interview earlier this month. “And it irks me when a citizen comes to the very thing it owns and is denied access to it. There’s just something fundamentally wrong about that.”

“Somewhere along the line we have forgotten the servant in public servant,” she said.

A Monroe County native, Mutchler is the youngest of seven children. Her father, a retired Army sergeant who was a World War II veteran, died several years ago.

She harbored a childhood dream of becoming a lawyer. But after working as a reporter for her high-school paper and then at The Daily Collegian at Penn State University, she wound up with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.

She worked at The Morning Call in Allentown for a couple of years, then was hired by The Associated Press at its Capitol bureau in Harrisburg. She worked for the news cooperative for six years, including stints at bureaus in Atlantic City, N.J.; Springfield, Ill., and Juneau, Alaska.

In Springfield, shortly after she took over the Illinois statehouse bureau in 1993, Mutchler’s professional and personal lives intersected in a way that changed her career path.

Mutchler fell in love with a state senator, the late Penny Severns, the Democratic whip who would be nominated for lieutenant governor in 1994.

Increasingly troubled over the ethical conflict created by the relationship but unwilling to end it, Mutchler transferred to Alaska shortly before the election, which the Democrats lost. In 1995, she left the AP and returned to Springfield to work as Severns’ spokeswoman and speech writer until she died of breast cancer in 1998.

During that period, Mutchler also attended Chicago’s John Marshall Law School. She got her degree in 1999 and subsequently worked as a law clerk in the Clinton White House and for a justice of the Illinois Supreme Court.

She was working as a litigation attorney for a Chicago law firm when she was lured back to Springfield in 2003 by the offer of a job that then-newly elected Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan was creating within her office to help settle open-records disputes.

First as a “one-woman show,” and later with help from two additional lawyers, Mutchler’s office decided more than 3,000 cases during her nearly four years as Illinois’ open-records counselor.

Scott Reeder, a reporter who covers the Illinois capitol for a chain of five newspapers in Illinois and Minnesota, said Mutchler was instrumental in helping him gain access to records on which he based a national award-winning series about the difficulty of firing problem teachers in Illinois once they are tenured.

Mutchler is “a very motivated, driven individual who really believes in open-government records,” he said.

When Pennsylvania state Rep. Josh Shapiro, a leading legislative champion of open records, was looking for outside expertise on the issue while drafting legislation in 2007, Madigan referred him to Mutchler.

“She offered some very valuable feedback and advice,” said Shapiro, D-Montgomery, who recommended her to Rendell’s office to head the open records office after the Pennsylvania law was signed.

Mutchler receives a $120,000 salary and a state-owned car.

Mutchler biography

NAME: Terry Mutchler

AGE: Turns 43 on Wednesday.

EDUCATION: Bachelor’s degree in journalism, Penn State University, 1987; J.D., John Marshall Law School, Chicago, 1999.

CAREER: Reporter for The Morning Call, Allentown, 1988-89; Associated Press reporter at bureaus in Harrisburg; Atlantic City, N.J.; Springfield, Ill.; and Juneau, Alaska, 1989-95. Adviser to Illinois Senate Democratic whip, 1995-98; law clerk for the Illinois Supreme Court, 1999-2000; litigation attorney for Chicago law firm, 2001-03; public access counselor in Illinois attorney general’s office, 2003-2007. Appointed executive director of Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records, 2008.

PERSONAL: Born in Monroe County, Pa. Lives in Rose Valley, Delaware County, with her partner, Maria Papacostaki, a professor and poet.

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