The Lancaster County District Attorney’s office cleared the Columbia Borough Council of violating the state’s open meetings law following an accusation made in June.
In a letter to Heather Zink, who contacted the prosecutor’s office with the open meetings allegations, the District Attorney’s office concluded “the facts and circumstances do not warrant further investigation.”
Zink, who is also running for a seat on the Columbia Borough Council, said the district attorney’s office notified her in a phone call and letter Wednesday afternoon.
“I’m floored,” Zink said in a phone call.
The complaint centered around a vote on June 11 to hire a Lewistown human resources consultant. According to Zink, the council never publicly discussed the contract or the need for an HR consultant at public meetings before the vote.
Following an investigation, the district attorney’s office came to a different conclusion.
“While members of Council engaged in information gathering during that executive session, no official action was taken until the proposal was presented, discussed and voted on at the June 11, 2019, public meeting,” the district attorney’s letter states.
A spokesman for the district attorney’s office provided the content of the letter, but not the person who signed the letter. Zink’s copy was signed by Detective Kent Switzer.
“The purpose (of the) Sunshine Act is to ensure that the public can be present for any ‘official action’ taken by an ‘agency,’” the letter continued.
“Obviously I disagree (with the decision) but I have no choice but to defer to the district attorney’s office,” Zink, who is running as a Democratic candidate for council, told LNP. “And we just look on to November.”
In a phone call Thursday afternoon, Columbia Borough Council President Kelly Murphy said he was satisfied with the district attorney’s determination. “There was no violation of the Sunshine Act,” he said. “That was our position was all along.”
Zink’s complaint was the second such filing with the district attorney’s office against Columbia in seven months. The first complaint, which was settled just over a month after the alleged violation occurred in November, led to a stern letter from the district attorney’s office.
While the office declined to investigate the first complaint because it could not prove there was an intent to violate the act, it said a subsequent inquiry would result in an investigation.
At points, the warning letter sent to Columbia in December was word-for-word what the district attorney’s office wrote to the Manheim Township School Board in 2016 for holding 11 closed-door meetings with little to no explanation for them.
The school board president at the time, Bill Murry, said the violations were “a clear oversight” and “not intentional.”
Meeting in private
The Sunshine Act requires government agencies like school boards, local governing boards and authorities to deliberate and take official action on matters in an open and public setting.
However, there are specific exceptions to the law — employment personnel matters, union negotiations and lawsuits can be discussed in a private meeting.
Melissa Melewsky, an attorney with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, a statewide trade group, disagreed with the office’s conclusion that the law intends for public access to “official action.”
“That conclusion ignores the intent of the law as well as its plain language,” Melewsky said.
Section 704 of the Sunshine Act requires “official action and deliberations by a quorum of the members of an agency” to take place at an open meeting, barring the exceptions noted for executive session.
“The DA's position fails to acknowledge the significant public right to witness and participate in agency deliberation under the Sunshine Act,” Melewsky said. “There's no question the law provides much broader rights — and imposes stricter duties on elected officials — than those outlined in the DA's letter.”