When: Columbia Borough Council meeting, June 23.
What happened: Borough Council met behind closed doors immediately after the regular meeting to discuss Columbia Borough Police Department’s use-of-force policy. Council President Heather Zink clarified in an email afterward the purpose of the executive session was to discuss legal questions around releasing all or part of the policy to the public.
Exception to openness: Zink said borough solicitor Evan Gabel said the meeting was exempt from Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act, which requires agencies to deliberate and take official action on agency business in a public meeting, because it was related to public protection.
Media lawyer’s position: Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel at Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said in an email the security exception of the Sunshine Act allows agencies to meet privately to discuss public safety and security matters “that if disclosed would be reasonably likely to jeopardize or threaten public safety or preparedness or public protection.” Melewsky said that while the exception is broad, it must be interpreted as narrowly as possible. While the meeting seemed more related to potential litigation than safety, she said, discussion of a law enforcement policy could impact public safety.
Use-of-force policies as public records: Melewsky also noted use-of-force policies are public records under the Right-to-Know Law, and the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records has ordered agencies to provide public access to them when materials that truly risk safety are redacted.
Mayor not in attendance: At the end of the public meeting, Mayor Leo Lutz declined to attend the executive session. In an email exchange after the meeting, Lutz said he and police Chief Jack Brommer had no advance notice of the executive session, and that it would have been a waste of their time to join a discussion “without the necessary information to answer any questions that may arise.”