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March 13, 2014

Legislator hopes to change closed-door meetings rule

HARRISBURG — Elected officials often abuse closed-door meetings, according to a state legislator who wants all secret sessions to be recorded to make it easier to find the truth should questions arise later.

Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Allegheny County, said executive sessions are generally misused in several ways: Officials retreat behind closed doors to discuss one topic then discuss something else without allowing the public to participate. Or they cloak their discussions by only telling the public a generic subject of the meeting. Or elected officials go into executive session, he said, because they don’t want to face the public while discussing a controversial subject.

Saccone proposed reforming how closed-door meetings are conducted. He authored a bill to require all closed-door sessions of government bodies be recorded in case questions arise about what happened and whether the conversations should have been held in public.

That’s significant because current law does not require government boards to keep a detailed record of what happens in executive session. In case of a challenge, the substance of the meeting must be reconstructed through testimony, said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.

Current law allows government boards to enter closed-door meetings to discuss six kinds of issues: personnel matters, litigation, labor negotiations, real estate negotiations, matters that are legally confidential, or in the case of university committees, academic standing or admissions.

Supporters of Saccone’s bill have had little trouble finding examples of boards that have stretched the limits of that law.

Republican state Rep. Brad Roae of Crawford County pointed to a $220,000 payment made by the Pennsylvania Game Commission to now-retired Executive Director Carl Roe. That was on top of Roe’s salary of $121,000 per year.

The Game Commission’s agreement made in a secret meeting settled legal claims with Roe. The Associated Press reported that documents indicated Roe had been warned the commission was talking about terminating him because of his performance.

Roae dismissed the payment as a “golden parachute.” It has also been questioned by Gov. Tom Corbett’s office. And Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s office is now reviewing the payment, spokesman Joe Peters said.

In another case, a Pennsylvania school board voted during a closed meeting to allow staff to carry guns at school, Melewsky said. The public in the Blue Mountain School District in Schuylkill County only learned about the policy when it was announced.

Commissioners in Crawford County, weeks after public debate on a tentative plan, voted in 2011 behind closed doors to exercise an option to purchase the former Talon property off upper Arch Street in the City of Meadville. When that decision came to light, there was public outcry, which the commissioners resolved by holding another meeting to have a public vote to complete the deal.

“Over $1.8 million has been spent on it so far,” and the county commissioners are now considering other options on how to use the property, Roae said.

Melewsky said Pennsylvania courts have ruled that “re-do” approach is a sufficient remedy of violations of the Sunshine Act, which makes it almost impossible to win a challenge under the law.

The Sunshine Act says those violating the law can be fined up to $1,000 for the first offense and up to $2,000 for every offense afterward. Melewsky said there are only two known cases of people getting hit with criminal penalties for violating the law in the last seven years.

Saccone’s bill would add a seventh exemption to the open meetings law to allow government boards to discuss security behind closed doors. It would also narrow the existing exemption for personnel discussions by stipulating that only debate about individual employees or job candidates may be held in executive session. All other personnel matters would need to be conducted in public view.

The state government committee has yet to vote on Saccone’s bill.

John Finnerty reports from the CNHI Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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