A group of Columbia residents worry borough council is violating the state’s open meeting law by holding information sessions in private prior to most of its public meetings.
Council held an information session prior to its regular meeting Tuesday “to receive information only items from its borough manager and solicitor,” according to the meeting agenda.
“I’m somewhat suspicious, knowing this board’s history,” borough resident Sharon Lintner said after the regular meeting. “We are suspicious of how much is going on behind closed doors.”
Council President Kelly Murphy said the board doesn’t deliberate or vote during information sessions.
“It’s just for information,” he said after Tuesday’s regular meeting.
“Our solicitor is a stickler for the law. He is super, ultra-conservative. There is absolutely no debating,” Murphy said. “It is just asking questions so we are prepared when we come out here for the public meeting.”
Norm Meiskey, a former Columbia borough manager and a frequent critic of council, agreed with Murphy’s description of the information sessions.
Meiskey said when he was manager, such sessions were “a one-way street, with the borough manager presenting information to clarify any issues on the agenda, Anytime people started to discuss something they were warned against it and it was stopped.”
The Sunshine Act
Lintner, who helped create the Columbia Concerned Citizens group and who is running for a seat on council in the upcoming election, previously filed a complaint with the Lancaster County District Attorney's Office alleging council violated the state’s open meetings law, known as the Sunshine Act, when it voted in a closed-door November meeting to fund a proposed new position.
The district attorney’s office declined to prosecute council members for that alleged violation, saying it could not prove criminal intent. But it did send the borough a letter warning that now that it has been advised of the law’s requirements, any future allegations of violations would be investigated with an assumption council now knows such actions are illegal.
The Sunshine Act requires that all deliberations and official action on council business be conducted in an open, public meeting.
The act does provide exceptions allowing certain matters, such as pending litigation, personnel issues, and real estate purchases or leases, to be discussed privately in what are known as executive sessions. Final votes and decisions, though, must be made in public.
Closed door information sessions are not mentioned in the law, but their legality was confirmed by a 2013 decision by the state Supreme Court, according to Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.
The court ruled the Sunshine Act only applies to gatherings where an agency engages in decision making or deliberations.
Deliberations were defined as “the framing, preparation, or enactment of laws, policies, or regulations, or the creation of liability by contract or otherwise, but only where the discussion is ‘held for the purpose of making a decision.’”
Melewsky said the court’s decision did not create a blanket “information session” exception to the Sunshine Act and argued even if they are technically legal, they are not in the public’s interest.
“That doesn’t mean that presentations to the board should be done in private; they concern public business and the public has a right to know what’s going on,” she said in an email Tuesday.