Cocalico Corner: Let the sun shine in!

By on July 8, 2015

Think it’s sunny in Cocalico these days?

You might, but there are those who have their doubts and I’m among them.

In posing that question, I’m not talking about the weather – I’m talking about transparency in local government demanded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania legislation commonly known as the Sunshine Law.

The law was originally adopted to ensure all Pennsylvania citizens have a legislative right to be present at most any meeting held by nearly any government body operating within Pennsylvania.

The basic premise of Sunshine is simple: Any time a government body (referred to within in the act as an “agency”) holds a meeting in which “deliberation” or “official action” by a quorum of its members takes place, the meeting must be open to the public following public legal notice of the meeting. Another part of the law: records, votes, deliberations and other official actions must available for public observation, participation, and/or inspection.

When you think about it, it makes sense. In a representative democracy, the folks making the decisions were elected by the people and answerable to them. The people have every right to know what is happening virtually every step along the way – hence, transparency. Government is a totally different animal than private business.

To be fair, there are times that government may legally shut its doors while deliberating by declaring an “executive session.” The Sunshine Act is clear about conditions for executive sessions: personnel issues; collective bargaining, labor relations, or arbitration; lease or purchase of real property, potential or current litigation; business involving lawful privilege or confidential information; specific topics of trustee committees of state-funded/affiliated colleges or universities.

As a sitting councilor in the City of Reading – and a longtime reporter – I’ve seen the Sunshine Law from both sides now (apologies for stealing your words, Joni Mitchell!).

I know that going into any executive session is not to be done lightly – and certainly not to be done without the benefit of an attorney’s advice. My colleagues and I defer to our solicitor’s opinion. There have been times I’ve disagreed (being a reporter makes one extra skeptical when roles are reversed) and I’ve sat out questionable sessions with the public and press. But, if I’m convinced the reason falls under the clear tenets of executive session, I’ll participate with a clear conscience.

One additional thing to remember about executive sessions: they must be announced as a part of a legal, scheduled governmental meeting. A quorum (majority) of officials of any municipality can’t just decide to meet in executive session at their convenience even if the subject matter is legitimate. All meetings – sans emergency sessions in response to some sort of disaster – require 24-hour public notice. That means advertising the meeting in the community’s newspaper(s) of record.

Alice Hummer, our longtime Review reporter covering East Cocalico Township, learned at the July 1 township session that the three supervisors along with two members of Denver borough council convened twice – twice – in unscheduled sessions in attempts to revive the flagging Cocalico Regional Police Force proposal. The results of the June 1 and June 22 sessions were letters detailing specific costs for providing police services to West Cocalico and Adamstown for 2016. (As Review readers will recall, both of those municipalities had pulled out of the regional police talks. West Cocalico supervisors, at a contentious mid-June meeting, indicated they were in conversations about coverage with other forces, but not East Cocalico.)

Photo by Donna Reed These two letters, one to West Cocalico Township and one to the Borough of Adamstown, are the result of two very questionable executive sessions hosted by the East Cocalico Township supervisors on June 1 and June 20.

Photo by Donna Reed
These two letters, one to West Cocalico Township and one to the Borough of Adamstown, are the result of two very questionable executive sessions hosted by the East Cocalico Township supervisors on June 1 and June 22.

While one might argue that executive sessions are warranted when discussing contract negotiations, not announcing the reason for a meeting – and not legally scheduling a meeting in which the reason for the executive session is announced – is a double no-no. And, considering there were two sessions, as noted at the East Cocalico meeting, that’s a double no-no times two. And, topping it off, the meetings were held in the East Cocalico building, the peoples’ house so to speak.

Since only two of Denver’s seven council members were present at these meetings, that borough gets a pass of sorts due to lack of quorum. Still, there’s an ethical obligation to publicly note participation in such sessions.

When it comes to questionable executive sessions, on separate instances, West Cocalico supervisors do not get off the hook.

At a boisterous St. Patty’s Day regular bimonthly supervisors meeting, the decision was made to call an executive session. Members of the audience argued that supervisors’ discussions regarding legally entering into a regional force should be done in public. Indeed, a letter in which parameters of an agreement had become public contained much of what would constitute discussions in the executive session.

When I cover a meeting, my job is to observe and report. Privately, I thought the supervisors had a good argument for executive session, falling under the contract negotiations section of the law. How they handled the matter was what got the public’s ire raised — and I understood that well.

After sustained back-and-forth banter, the announcement was made. The reason cited was clearly off topic, but still the supervisors and solicitor exited into executive session.

The executive session was likely acceptable; the explained rationale not so much.

In early September 2014, the supervisors spent a good portion of their regular meeting debating their ability to call an executive session. The solicitor was not present – indeed, he is not present for most meetings, a cost-saving measure by the supervisors. And, to make matters worse, he was out of town for three weeks, precluding anything resembling a timely response.

The public wasn’t too thrilled that time, either.

It’s important for everyone – elected officials and the public – to understand and take seriously the Sunshine Act. Government transparency is owed to everyone.

The March 17 regular meeting of West Cocalico and the June 1 and June 22 unscheduled meetings of East Cocalico were all anathemas to representative democracy.

Maybe its fitting the next meeting of West Cocalico is set for July 14, also known as Bastille Day. Remember your history, remember how the peasants toppled the royalist government and initiated the French Revolution by storming the Bastille?

Those folks wanted transparency in government. They got it – more or less as royal heads rolled — literally!

Cocalico folks — whether in Denver, East or West Cocalico, even Adamstown — should also be demanding transparency by every official.

If not, it might be time for heads to roll – figuratively, of course – on some future election day.

Donna Reed, Cocalico section editor of the Ephrata Review, welcomes your feedback at dreed.eph@LNPnews.com

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