It’s become more than apparent since its passage in 1998 that Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act has holes that need to be filled if we are ever to ensure truly open government. Efforts have been made to amend the act and tighten its language, but it seems our Legislature has had more important things to do.
Jim Christiana is the latest state representative to propose changes to improve transparency and participation in open meetings. You may recall that Christiana is the Beaver County legislator who, through shameless gerrymandering, represents a portion of Washington County, some of which is a half day’s journey from his home.
Christiana proposes to amend the law to mandate making agendas available to the public at meeting locations and online, requiring items to be voted on to be advertised before meetings and ensuring that items omitted from the agenda are not voted on during meetings. The legislator cited continuing issues in Beaver County as his chief reason for seeking the reform.
Although we can’t agree more that the Sunshine Act needs to be improved, we see problems with Christian’s revisions. The requirement that all items to be voted on be advertised would handcuff elected officials and prevent them from taking timely action that could safeguard taxpayers’ money and prevent dangerous situations. Imagine a school board being informed at its monthly meeting of the discovery that morning of a leaking roof or a collapsing wall. Under Christian’s proposed amendment, the board would be prevented from voting to spend money to repair the leak or shore up the wall until the motion was properly advertised.
A better amendment to the law was introduced by Rep. Rick Saccone in September 2013. House Bill 1671 would tighten the language of the act regarding executive sessions and require such sessions to be recorded.
The abuse of executive sessions is widespread. Often, elected officials conduct secret discussions with no more explanation to the public than that they are discussing “personnel” or “litigation.” The Sunshine Act allows executive sessions under certain circumstances, including, “To discuss any matter involving the employment, appointment, termination of employment, terms and conditions of employment, evaluation of performance, promotion or disciplining of any specific prospective public officer or employee or current public officer or employee employed or appointed by the agency, or former public officer or employee, provided, however, that the individual employees or appointees whose rights could be adversely affected may request, in writing, that the matter or matters be discussed at an open meeting.”
House Bill 1671 would change the language to make it clear that the subject of secret discussion is a “specific individual,” not personnel in general.
At a hearing on the bill last March, Saccone said, “Abuse of the executive session privilege appears to be widespread, with some school boards, township supervisors and other government entities apparently calling private meetings in haphazard fashion outside the bounds of the law – even over the objections of citizens in attendance. Action clearly needs to be taken.”
We can’t agree more. But the bill has languished in the House’s State Government Committee, and the prospects of its passage in this session are nil.
Open government is not high on our state government’s list of priorities.