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Always in Order
2021-03-17

            March 14 through 20 is "Sunshine Week" in Pennsylvania and the celebration is a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.

            The Commonwealth's Sunshine Act was signed into law to require state government meetings be public with the exception of executive sessions, conferences, and certain workshops.

            An amendment requires that "official action and deliberations by a quorum of the members of an agency shall take place at a meeting open to the public unless certain exceptions apply."

            One of the exceptions permitted is "To consult with its attorney or other professional advisor regarding information or strategy in connection with litigation or with issues on which identifiable complaints are expected to be filed." 

            Before going into an executive session or upon leaving one, most municipal leaders simply announce that they are having an executive session regarding "Pending Litigation or Personnel issues."  That's not good enough.

            In a 1993, the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas rendered a decision against the city of Reading that was upheld, upon appeal, by the Commonwealth Court.  The decision held that city council had to give a specific reason before calling a private, executive session.

            In their finding the Court wrote, in part, that the general nature of the complaint has to be announced when an executive session is called to discuss it.  The level of identification is appropriate because the action has not been or may not be filed.

            To expand beyond the "Litigation" exemption, the court also wrote "The reason given, of course, must be meaningful.  It must be more than some generalized term which in reality tells the public nothing.  To simply say 'personnel matters' or 'litigation' tells nothing.  The reason stated must be of sufficient specificity to inform those present that there is reality, a specific discrete matter or area which the board had determined should be discussed in executive session.

            "When a board chairman tells a citizen he may not hear the board discuss certain business, he is taking liberties with the rights of that citizen, and the reason given for this interference must be genuine and meaningful, and one the citizen can understand.  To permit generalized fluff would frustrate the very purpose of the Act."

            If all you give the public is "fluff" how will they know that the reason for your executive session is legitimate?  And, the public does have the right to question it right then and there.

            We think an update, and keeping the people informed about their right to know, is always in order.            


 

 

 

 

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