Tightening the rules on executive sessions

September 17, 2013

Anyone who has ever attended a township, city council or school board meeting knows that, periodically, the members of those bodies retreat behind closed doors into “executive session.” Though they are supposed to hash over and vote on issues before the eyes and within earshot of their constituents, the executive session is a legally sanctioned loophole elected officials can use to discuss issues they deem too hot to handle in a public venue, such as pending litigation or personnel matters.

Part of the problem with the executive session, however, is officials can offer any number of reasons why one must take place, and then discuss whatever they want within its confines. The public they serve is left in the dark about what transpires out of their view.

State Rep. Rick Saccone, the Elizabeth Republican whose legislative district includes part of Washington County, has come up with a sensible proposal that would tighten the rules regarding executive sessions and would shed some light on what happens within them.

Currently being debated in the House Committee on State Government, the measure would allow officials to discuss security and emergency preparedness within executive sessions, which seems an entirely reasonable provision. But it would also mandate that recordings be made of executive sessions and be held for one year so a judge can determine if an executive session slipped out of its proscribed boundaries should a legal challenge arise. How a recording would escape a subpoena or not be covered under the Sunshine Act, is not yet resolved in the measure’s language. Nonetheless, it has the support of the Pennsylvania News Media Association, which fields scores of inquiries every year about executive sessions and how they are used – or overused.

Lord Acton, the English historian who noted that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” also said that “everything secret degenerates” and that “nothing is safe that does not show it can bear discussion and publicity.” These are wise words our lawmakers should consider when it comes to executive sessions.



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