When: Council reorganization meeting, Jan. 6.
What happened: Council will continue the controversial practice of holding closed-door, private meetings prior to each public council meeting despite the swearing-in Monday night of four new members, four of whom ran on platforms calling for increased transparency in borough government. A motion was made by incumbent Todd Burgard and passed by a 5-2 vote with council’s two other holdovers, Fran FitzGerald and Pamela Williams, joined by newcomers Howard Stevens and Eric Kauffmann.
Why it matters: Trust and transparency became big issues in Columbia where twice in the past 13 months citizens lodged complaints with the Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office, alleging violations of the state’s open meetings law. The DA’s office declined to prosecute but did issue a warning letter to the borough in response to a complaint filed by Sharon Lintner. The other allegation was lodged by Heather Zink. Lintner and Zink are now newly sworn-in members of the council, with Zink serving as the board’s new president and Lintner as vice president.
Background: The closed-door, information-only sessions are rare, despite being allowed by the courts, which ruled they may occur as long as council does not deliberate. Zink said she found no other municipalities in the county that routinely hold such meetings. Most municipal solicitors advise against the practice because of the risk of talk straying into deliberations in violation of the law. Burgard argued that they should continue since they’re allowed. All three incumbents endorsed the closed-door meetings, saying it was like a dress rehearsal and helped them prepare for the public meeting. Lintner and Zink countered there was no reason to bar the public from the sessions and urged council to meet privately only for matters allowed by the Sunshine Act.
Quotable: “I have sat in those meetings for years,” Mayor Leo S. Lutz said. “A lot of times, I wasted an hour.” Lutz suggested council only call executive sessions when needed and as allowed by the Sunshine Act, calling the closed-door sessions “not productive at all.”
What’s next: Council’s vote mandates closed-door sessions before each of the two voting meetings each month but not prior to monthly workshop meeting. Those sessions, previously an hour long, have been cut to 30 minutes. Zink has also worked with Borough Manager Rebecca S. Denlinger to implement a deadline for items to be added to the agenda in order to facilitate staff getting meeting packets distributed to council, and available to the public, the Friday before each meeting. Zink hopes having the weekend to prepare for upcoming meetings may help reduce the need for closed-door preparations.