Luzerne County Controller Walter Griffith feels the county commissioners violated the Sunshine Act during a recent meeting of the minds. According to this report from Jennifer Learn-Andes of the Times Leader Griffith is considering legal action to prove his point.
Griffith said he has evidence that all three commissioners met behind closed doors on Nov. 24 to discuss formulation of the county’s proposed 2011 budget.
The Sunshine Act says deliberation by a quorum of an agency must occur at a public meeting unless it meets certain exceptions, such as discussions about some personnel issues, contract negotiations, property lease/purchases and litigation.
Griffith said controller’s office Solicitor Tom Mosca is reviewing the matter and would file the legal action at no additional cost to the county. Violations of the act call for a fine of up to $100, he said.
Commissioner Chairwoman Maryanne Petrilla told Griffith that commissioners are permitted to meet “as long as there’s no deliberation and no decisions made.”
“It’s not a violation of the Sunshine Act for us to be together,” she said.
But Griffith said Thursday that he’s confident that deliberation occurred because commissioners discussed their plans to alter the county’s proposed budget. If he proceeds with legal action, Griffith said he will seek testimony from management officials who attended that closed-door meeting, including county Budget/Finance Chief Tom Pribula, who has resigned effective Dec. 8.
The Pennsylvania Newspapers Association wrotethree articles dealing with Misconceptions about The Sunshine Act.
When an agency as defined in the Act (for example, a school board or a board of supervisors) has a prearranged gathering attended or participated in by a quorum of its members, the gathering is a meeting. You can call it a work session or a conference or getting together at the diner after the meeting or a fact-finding session, but it's nonetheless a meeting in the eyes of the law. The gathering place is a matter of complete indifference under the Sunshine Act's terms. A meeting can happen anywhere inside or outside a government building.
Meetings may or may not be open to the public. Whenever a meeting occurs for the purpose of deliberation or taking official action, it must be open to the public and all the formalities associated with a public meeting - notice, public participation, minute-taking, etc. - must be observed by the agency. Deliberation is defined in the Act as discussion for the purpose of making a decision about agency business. Official action is also a defined term, and it encompasses a broad range of activity including making recommendations or decisions, creating policy and voting.
It is hard for the ordinary person to understand Commissioner Petrilla's position. Discussion about the budget is deliberation regardless of whether some conclusion(forget a vote) came from that discussion.