Walter Brasch, of Bloomsburg, PA, an author, columnist and retired college professor trying to write a book about fracking in Marcellus Shale country, has run headlong into the wall many governmental organizations erect around themselves. The public is incapable of understanding what is good for it, some in government believe, and secrets must be kept.
Brasch is a social issues journalist and author of “Before the First Snow,” a tale of 1960s-era counter-culture and backroom deals made between government and the nuclear power industry to build plants before the public realized what was being done, and before land prices escalated and regulations were developed.
A few years ago, the county Economic Development Corporation, in charge of bringing jobs and financial well-being to the rural environs of south central Pennsylvania, was trying to help an unnamed corporation decide this was the right place in which to locate a new distribution center.
At least, some people thought it was to be a distribution center. Some people thought it would be a Walmart distribution center. EDC members were not talking.
Some of us wanted to know , if this was to be 2.4 million square feet of warehouse and parking yard that was rumored, what an inch of rain would mean to a nearby stream. Every time that question was posed, the answer came back: “It’s not a Walmart.” No one really cared whose sign was on the building; the stream had been known to flood in heavy rain, and a couple million square feet of impervious ground cover beside it was not going to help.
Alas, the members all had signed confidentiality agreements, including the three county commissioners, who were, by virtue of having been voted to their commissionerships, voting members of the EDC, where they represented the county’s taxpayers – who helped pay the agency’s operating budget with tax money. In other words, they could vote to approve a project with major environmental impact, and were not going to tell the public until that vote was counted what the project was.
Walter Brasch found himself in a similar situation when he commenced work on a book about fracking for natural gas in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale. In researching the multiple factors of fracking’s public persona, Brasch approached the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors – a legislatively established, taxpayer-funded agency charged with representing the needs of the state’s townships. The organization comprises township supervisors, elected by their residents to attend to municipal affairs. One might think PSATS to be a public agency, required under the Commonwealth’s so-called Sunshine Law, to provide copies of its communications and deliberations created as it worked with the legislature in the townships’ behalf.
Au contraire, said PSATS, claiming to be a private organization and therefore exempt from the Sunshine Law.
Brasch went to the state Right to Know Officer, who thought the same thing most taxpayers likely would have thought: an organization of public officials, doing the public’s business with public money should be transparent.
PSATS went to court to appeal the decision. A hearing was scheduled for next week in Cumberland County Court of Common Pleas. Brasch’s lawyers requested a delay.
“We had asked for that (delay) because we did not have enough time to find lawyers and money and research the case,” Brash said Monday. “We don’t have a lawyer on staff the way PSATS does.”
A January hearing has been tentatively scheduled.
The agency has vowed to fight to the state supreme court to protect its information. Meanwhile, Brasch continues work on his book.
“Some of the critical issues would not be able to printed at this point because of verification,” Brasch said, pointing out the danger that would be involved in printing suspicions or ideas without verification – and getting something wrong.
“But the main issue is enforcing the state’s Right To Know Law,” he said.
Any citizen should be able to seek any public information without the need to find an attorney and pay to pursue information to which they are entitled, Brasch said.
The Society of Professional Journalists has put up $2,500 toward legal expenses. York attorneys Niles Benn and Terry Barna, who specialize in Right To Know and social issues have deeply cut their rates to pursue the case, which could run to “the mid-five figures if we have to go to the supreme court,” Brasch said.
“Actually, now they’ve (PSATS) placed such a high price on secrecy, they’ve even got me wondering what they’re hiding,” Brasch mused.
I agree, as might anyone who has been at a party during which everyone is shouting to be heard – except the two guys over in the corner, with their heads together, whispering.
I wonder what would happen if township residents across the state decided to refuse to fund the organization, or to designate any of their municipal officials to be publicly funded members. What if they announced, in public meetings, they would not pay for membership in secret organizations.
Budget approval time for counties and municipalities is next month.
Photo by wcn247
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