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Know
2017-12-13

            With the upcoming year, and several new elected officials, improving transparency in local government has been touted.  You know, often promised and seldom delivered.

            To that end, we offer the following excerpts from Pennsylvania's Office of Open Records.  They offer a basic into to the rules, and we encourage you to read the entire policy.  You can read the policy and much more on their website at www.openrecords.pa.gov/SunshineAct.cfm

            Can an agency have a closed meeting? An agency may discuss certain matters in Executive Session, which is not held in public. Some reasons an agency may hold an executive session include discussing personnel matters; holding an information, strategy and negotiation session related to the negotiation of a collective bargaining agreement; considering the purchase or lease of real property; and consulting with an attorney about active or pending litigation. The specific reason for an executive session must be announced in the public meeting either before or directly after the executive session. See Reading Eagle Co. v. Council of City of Reading, 627 A.2d 305 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1993)("[T]he reasons stated by the public agency must be specific, indicating a real, discrete matter.")

            Closed gatherings may also be held "solely for the purpose of collecting information or educating agency members about an issue." See Smith v. Township of Richmond, 623 Pa. 209, 223 (Pa. 2013) ("[T]he Supervisors' four closed-door gatherings did not violate the [Sunshine] Act because they were held for informational purposes only and did not involve deliberations.")

No official action can be taken during executive session or a closed gathering; all official actions must be taken during the public portion of a meeting.

            What legal remedies are available for violations of the Sunshine Act? Section 710.1(c) of the Sunshine Act permits anyone attending a public meeting to object to a perceived violation at any time during the meeting. Additionally, for state agencies, a member of the public can file a complaint with the Commonwealth Court. For local agencies, a member of the public can file a complaint with the local Court of Common Pleas. Any complaint must be filed within 30 days of the public meeting in which the alleged infraction occurred. If the alleged infraction occurred during a closed meeting, the complaint must be filed within 30 days of the discovery of the infraction, as long as it is no longer than one year from when the meeting was held. The person alleging the infraction bears the burden of proof. See Smith v. Township of Richmond, 623 Pa. 209, 223 (Pa. 2013) ("[I]n view of the presumption of regularity and legality that obtains in connection with proceedings of local agencies, the challenger [of an agency meeting] bears the burden to prove a violation." Internal quotation and citation omitted.)

            Are there penalties for violating the Sunshine Act? Yes. In addition to being assessed attorneys' fees, any member of an agency who is found to have willfully violated the act can face criminal charges and be subject to fines of $100 to $1,000 for the first offense, and $500 to $2,000 for the second offense.

            To all, know what is required and what isn't.  To those who feel the rules were broken, know when and how to file a complaint.  To those who break the rules, know what the penalties are.


 

 

 

 

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