We want a comprehensive study done of Luzerne County government, and that will not happen if every meeting, every hearing, and every proceeding is open to the public. The study commission needs to meet in private (at certain times) in order to find out what works and what doesn't work in county government.
The debate on whether to have private meetings became very public when commission member Walter Griffith released e-mail correspondence between other commission members and him. Mark Guydish of the Times Leader got into the fray and fell down on the side of "all public, all the time."
Griffith, Guydish, and others are just plain wrong on this issue on political and legal terms.
We had OVC legal correspondent, Bruce Haller research the issue for us. Here are some of his findings.
"Home Rule" is governed by Pennsylvania Statutes, particularly Title 53, Chapter 29. With regards to meetings, Section 2920 states:
"The government study commission shall hold one or more public hearings, may hold private hearings and sponsor public forums and generally shall provide for the widest possible publicinformation and discussion respecting the purposes and progress of its work."
The reason for private hearings is quite obvious, and we believe is why the commonwealth allows a commission to meet in private. It is analogous to the concept behind whistle blower statutes.
How can we expect to get an honest and unbiased account of the workings of county government if every interview of current county employees is subject to the scrutiny of the witness's fellow employees, the general public, and his or her boss?
Let's take the following example. The commission is looking into the inner workings of the clerk of courts office. Does anyone truly believe that a current employee is going to tell the commission at a public hearing that many of his fellow employees' jobs are unnecessary or that the office of prothonotary and clerk of courts should be combined, resulting in the layoff of half the staffs? It aint gonna happen.
If the commission decides to hold all public hearings, they will not get the honest look at county government, which the public wants and so desperately needs.
Griffith, Guydish, and others believe the Pennsylvania "Sunshine Act" applies to the home rule commission. Bruce also looked into this issue.
The Sunshine Act only applies to "agencies." The agency definition in the Sunshine Act does not include home rule commissions. Bruce also reviewed the dozen or so "home rule" cases which have made it to the courts of the commonwealth. None provided any guidance, either way, on whether home rule commissions are governed by the Sunshine Act.
When we look further into the Sunshine Act, we see that agencies may meet in private to discuss certain issues. Personnel matters, collective bargaining matters, the purchase or lease of property, ongoing litigation, and matters involving lawful privilege are the exceptions to the public meeting standard.
It is not conceivable that the commission would ever fall into one of these exceptions. If is also nonsensical to believe that the home rule laws written by the commonwealth would provide a private meeting option if the Sunshine Act prohibited such meetings.
Face it, the Sunshine Act does not apply and thankfully so.
We would end our discussion with that, but Guydish and Griffith make us continue.
After pontificating about the need of a "no exceptions" rule to public meetings of the home rule commission, Guydish wrote:
"Commission members can call each other outside of meetings, they can exchange documents, thoughts and ideas when they are not together. "
This raises another issue, besides the fact that Guydish believes closed door meetings among a few members to hammer out the details and make the real decisions is fine, as long as they meet as a "committee of the whole" at a later date and run through the motions.
The issue is that committee member Griffith has already decided that everything the commission does is public, including e-mail messages between commission members. He has already provided e-mails concerning the "public/private meetings" debate to the Times Leader and other media outlets.
We strongly believe that most of the meetings of the commission should be held in the public, but we also strongly believe that the commission should and must, within its own discretion, meeting in private when necessary.