Lawmaker proposes reforms to Sunshine Act

June 24, 2014

In an effort to improve transparency and participation within open meetings across the state, Rep. Jim Christiana, R-Beaver, is proposing a list of reforms to the Sunshine Act.

The Sunshine Act, last amended in 2012, protects the public’s right to attend public meetings where government agencies discuss business. While there are three types of meetings exempted from the act – executive sessions, conferences and working sessions of boards of auditors – Christiana said local elected officials misuse these exceptions.

“(The reform bill is a result) of a combination of things,” said Christiana, who represents the 15th Legislative District. “Some elected officials have misused executive sessions or avoid putting topics on the agenda. … It is a disservice to the public.”

Christiana cited ongoing issues in Beaver County as one of his chief reasons for seeking the reform. The changes would include making agendas available to the public prior to scheduled meetings both at meeting locations and online, ensuring that items to be voted on will be advertised prior to meetings and ensuring that items omitted from the agenda are not voted on during meetings.

“This will ensure the public is aware of the items being acted on,” he said.

Christiana said some elected officials knowingly omit hot-button items from agendas to reduce public participation.

“These same types of behaviors have been in existence for some time,” he said. “Elected officials should have to give notice prior to actions. … I think that’s a reasonable request.”

The legislation is still in the early phases of consideration, Christiana said, but he hopes to see it take effect this fall.

“The Legislature has the responsibility to clean up the Sunshine Act,” he said.

Christiana thanks those local elected officials who are being “transparent and forthcoming.”

“This won’t affect them,” he said. “This will make it uncomfortable for those who deviate away from the act.”

Possible ramifications and consequences for those who continue to deviate from the Sunshine Act after the latest reforms are in place are being discussed. Currently, government bodies found violating the Sunshine Act face injunctions, monetary penalties and invalidation of official actions.

Francesca Sacco joined the Observer-Reporter as a staff writer in November 2013, and covers the Washington County Courthouse and education. Prior to working with the Observer-Reporter, Francesca was a staff writer with a Gannett paper in Ohio. She graduated from Point Park University with a dual bachelor’s degree in print and broadcast journalism.

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