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Game commission pressured to be more transparent and more accountable

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(The Center Square) — The Pennsylvania Game Commission considers its leadership decisions to be above-board, but legislators see recent events as reason to exert greater oversight.

Now, on June 3, the House Game and Fisheries Committee plans to hold a hearing as a follow-up on what progress the PGC has made since a 2019 audit raising a number of issues.

At the end of April, PGC’s executive director Bryan Burhans resigned due to having business relationships with PGC employees when he worked on the side as a wellness coach. The PGC then quickly appointed Steve Smith, deputy executive director, to lead the commission.

However, Rep. David Maloney, R-Boyertown, argued the appointment violated state law by not holding a public vote. Maloney, the Republican chair of the Game and Fisheries Committee, has argued the PGC is headed for a reckoning and deserves more scrutiny.

Soon after Maloney aired his criticism, the PGC held a 10-minute meeting on May 13 to take a unanimous vote to appoint Smith.

“The responses that I get from all over the state, especially from employees past and present within the agency, is alarming at best and I’m hopeful that the governor will see fit to re-evaluate how he should approach this independent agency and demand accountability,” Maloney said.

He would like to see Gov. Josh Shapiro pressure the agency’s commissioners more and make changes to allow hunters to elect a commissioner of their own as well.

House Democrats, too, want change.

“We’re looking forward to working with the Game Commission to make it more transparent and more accountable,” Rep. Anita Astorino Kulik, D-Coraopolis, said during a May 22 committee hearing, which she chairs. “There are many issues going on right now with the commission we would like to address. We’re not looking to dismantle or do anything other than to make the commission more transparent.”

Maloney worries that no change can come from within the commission, a “cabal inside Elmerton Avenue that decides to do things as they will.”

“It comes down to a culture that has existed inside this agency for so long,” he said. “I’m really tired of the fact that this agency has been able to get along for so long without any accountability for their behavior.”

During the committee hearing, Kulik and Maloney noted that more bills to address their concerns are forthcoming. The committee voted to advance House Bill 2314, which would subject Game Commission funds to audit and appropriation by the General Assembly.