Judge’s Finger Rests on Sunshine Switch

Posted by By at 25 January, at 13 : 58 PM Print

A Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, judge may soon have a say in whether citizens have a right to know what decisions are made when their elected officials gather to make them. Currently, some gatherings of elected officials can claim protection from the states Right to Know Law.

Last July, a Bloomsburg-based author asked the PA State Association of Township Supervisors for information about its lobbying efforts as the legislature formulated a law to, purportedly, regulate the controversial Marcellus Shale industry. Passed and signed by Gov. Tom Corbett, R-Marcellus, in February, the law established setbacks keeping wells a few hundred feet away from schools and homes, created an impact fee to help mitigate local expenses engendered by well-drillers, and denied municipalities their traditional right to determine where various legal land uses would be sited within the townships boundaries.

PSATS told author Walter Brach it would not release the information. Although the organization was established by the legislature to represent the townships, and its members and governing body comprises supervisors elected officials, all from more than 1,400 townships across the state, PSATS claimed immunity from exposure to solar rays.

The states Office of Open Records directed PSATS to release the information, a decision the organization appealed to Cumberland County Court of Common Pleas, where last week the organization argued membership is voluntary and it has no authority to perform governmental functions.

Although the members gather annually to discuss mutual interests and elect a governing body, Nothing PSATS does binds them in any way to action or inaction, the groups General Counsel Scott Coburn said of policy decisions made by PSATS members.

What’s to stop a group of townships from creating a taxation group to decide how they would tax their residents? asked Susan Schwartz, state Project Sunshine chairwoman for the Society of Professional Journalists.

All they would need do is claim the results of their members’ discussions were non-binding, and they could remain secret, she suggested.

To which allow me to add, for example:

A few years ago, the Economic Development Corporation in my county helped an unnamed company decide whether to establish a distribution center here. The facility would have included a 1.2 million square foot warehouse and a similarly-sized truck parking area. The complex would have been adjacent to a stream known for local flooding, that flows into, eventually, Chesapeake Bay. 

The EDCs job is to bring well-paying year-round jobs to the county. It receives funding from county tax revenues. And the three county commissioners were, and are, voting members of its board of directors, yet they also were sworn to secrecy about the proposal.

The press repeatedly asked about the environmental considerations, and were as repeatedly rebuffed with the statement, We never said it was Walmart. As one of the questioning journalists, I can attest the questions were never about the name to be painted on the building, but rather about the 27 olympic swimming pools of water one inch of rain would have dumped into the creek.

It is easy to see why a company would want to keep secret its future plans. Its a dog-eat-dog business world out there.

But elected officials are sworn to be open with their constituents, not to refuse to discuss what plans might be made for environmental risks to the very community the members are sworn to protect.

School boards and other elected panels often hide behind personnel issues to avoid talking about issues affecting parents, students and other constituents. Certainly the public does not need to be privy to all the minutiae of a minor disciplinary action that does not involve criminal proceedings.

But when a school superintendent is being terminated, the public deserves more detail than simply to be told the board finally, after months of secret deliberations, has voted to send the superintendent packing with three-quarters of a million in not-yet-earned salary in his pocket.

The panels say any decision will be made in public session, but the truth is the discussions leading to a decision are held behind closed doors, and the vote, though recorded in public, at least appears to have been determined in secret.

One could hope Judge Hess will rule in favor of the public right to know the deliberations of its elected representatives.

If the judge rules for us, then its over, Coburn said following the hearing.

But he acknowledged a ruling either way could be appealed to a higher court, even including the state supreme court.

Both PSATS and Brasch have vowed to continue the fight to the state supreme court, if necessary. It likely will be necessary. PSATS has attorneys on retainer and plenty of money to pay them, and Brasch also has received promises of financial aid.

But in the end, this is not about one author battling one agency. All the states residents and even those in other states, have a stake in the outcome if Right To Know is to have any meaning at all.

Photo by Where’s Whitlow


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This post was written by:
- who has written 169 posts for Rock The Capital
John Messeder is an award winning journalist with more than 35 years experience writing about education, environment and local government issues. He has lived in Maine, Florida, California and Alaska, and, by temporary turns, numerous places in between. John also is an accomplished photographer, and avid hiker, conservationist, oral history buff, and author of several books he has not yet got 'round to writing. He lives in Adams County, Pa., just over a hill from Gettysburg, with his wife and Golden Retriever. He may be contacted at john@JohnMesseder.com - Email jmesseder

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