Text Messaging etc Violates Sunshine Act


No need to conduct business behind closed doors or to leave out certain elected officials. This happens far too often at various levels of  Fayette County PA government & public agencies.  The use of Text Messaging etc  often violates the PA Sunshine Act.

Earlier this month editorials in two local newspapers reminded elected officials and citizens about open government. Their editorials were written after a borough councilman said his fellow council members violated the Sunshine Law when they conducted discussions about borough business using group text messaging.
The newspapers wrote that “the public’s business should always be conducted in public” and “there is no exception to the Sunshine Act when the majority of a board discusses business no matter what means they use to do it”.

One newspaper reminded its readers that “The Sunshine Act provides that public agencies like city or borough councils, county commissioners, school boards or township supervisors, must conduct discussions about their business in public. A quorum of those elected officials cannot hold discussions about official business in private, hammer out what they are going to do, and then execute their plans in public.”

Another local newspaper reported Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania News Media Association, as saying elected officials can “run afoul of the Sunshine Law by communicating through group emails or text messages, depending on the content of those communications.” It is also worth noting that there is no ‘informational’ exemption to the Sunshine Act, and every quorum discussion of agency business must be evaluated on its own merits.” There are some exceptions to the open meeting requirements, but they are few and specific.

Another aspect of the Sunshine Act pertains to publicizing a Public Meeting Agenda. For years, by law, agendas were to be posted at the public meeting location, on the government website and were to have clear meaning. Recent legislation adds that an agenda must be made available to the public 24 hours in advance of the meeting. Solicitors who work for public agencies, public entities and elected officials should ensure the law is understood by public officials and public employees and urge compliance.

There are a number of reasons why one should obey this law. Violating the Act is subject to criminal charges and fines and elected officials do take an oath of office and as in the title I give to this editorial, Open Government is the Best Government.

Electing A Chair

I was not going to post about this subject, however,  since the November election and more so since this week’s Swearing-In Ceremony many have asked my thoughts on what will happen at 10am this Monday, January 4th  at the Commissioners Reorganization Meeting.

History proves that counties across Pennsylvania adhere to the practice of naming the top vote getter of the majority party as chair.  I am the top vote getter of the majority party.

In the past 50 years plus it has only been in 2004 when Republicans held the majority in the Commissioners Office and accordingly I was named Chair and now,  2016 the Republicans again hold the majority.   In the other years  the Democrats held the majority and as such also the Chair.    There is no law to follow just common practice.   The following is taken from the Manual for County Commissioners, August 2015 edition.   

Transition to a New Board of Commissioners      —–    Electing a Chair. At the first meeting of the new board in January, a determination must be made as to who will be the chair and who will be the vice chair. Any one of the board members may become the chair. The most common scenario is for one of the majority members to become chair and the other majority member to become vice chair. There are instances where the minority member serves as chair; for example some counties observe a custom of rotating the chair annually. Others have a custom that the member of the majority party who received the most votes in the general election becomes the chair.