Chestnut Hill Local
Date: April 7, 2005
Byline: Michael J. Mishak
Springfield Township officials may have broken Sunshine Law
The board of commissioners routinely convenes as a group prior to its regularly scheduled meetings. According to a media law expert, the practice violates state law.
In January 2004, when the Springfield Township Board of Commissioners overwhelmingly approved a Bryn Mawr firm's development plan for the Black Horse Inn site, officials offered little explanation for their votes.
Despite public opposition, the board voted 6-1 for the plan.
According to Commissioner Kathleen Lunn, who cast the sole dissenting vote, the board had already debated and settled the issue in a meeting a half hour before the advertised time of its monthly meeting, outside the view of constituents.
Because the board had been given less than a week to review the plan, which involved building a Walgreen's pharmacy and a liquor store on the site of the historic inn, Lunn pleaded for a 30-day delay but failed.
"I was shocked that they would decide which way the motion would go," said Lunn of her first meeting as a newly-elected commissioner.
The meeting was the first of many in which township business would be discussed in the absence of the public, she said.
In defiance of a state law intended to keep the business of government before the eyes of the public, the Springfield Township Board of Commissioners has maintained a longstanding practice of holding deliberations outside the view of constituents, according to one current and one former commissioner.
Springfield Township officials are raising concerns over possible violations of the state's Sunshine Act for the second time in a little more than a decade.
The law, initially passed in 1974 as the Open Meeting Law, bars four or more of the board's seven commissioners from deliberating township business or taking official action behind closed doors, with few exceptions.
The law allows for executive, or closed door, sessions in matters related to personnel, collective bargaining, purchase or lease of real estate and ongoing litigation.
While the pre-meeting open-door sessions which are held in a room adjacent to the township's main boardroom mostly serve as a procedural review for commissioners, talk often turns into deliberation, Lunn said.
"We do deliberate," Lunn said. "I'm uncomfortable with it and I've expressed my discomfort."
When Lunn raised the issue of a possible violation with a township solicitor shortly after her first meeting more than a year ago, she said she was given no clear answers.
"I was left with the idea that it was a gray area," she said. If the meetings made her uncomfortable, the solicitor told her, she didn't have to attend. "I was faced with a tough choice," she said. "If I left the meetings I wouldn't know what they were talking about."
"I have been opposed to doing this," Lunn said of the meetings. "I want to do what's best for the community."
Lunn described instances of political "arm twisting" during such meetings.
"They're committed to the appearance of unanimity," Lunn said of her fellow board members. "They aim for as little contention as possible in public. It's time to change that."
In 1994, the board agreed to adopt an open-door policy for its pre-meeting sessions, which had previously been closed to the public, after three new commissioners Jane Roberts, Beth Drezner and Ken Bradley protested.
"When you go behind a closed door, it looks like an executive session," Roberts told the Springfield Sun in July 1994. "The perception can be as bad as the fact." In a telephone interview with the Local last week, Roberts stood by her words, adding: "Even if you don't do anything, the perception is what the public sees. You have to be careful."
As one of three Democrats on a formerly all-Republican board, Roberts said the push to keep the door open was a political struggle. "We had to fight just to get the door open," she said.
Both Roberts and Drezner said longtime Republican commissioners had used the closed meetings to admonish dissenting Democrats.
But Roberts, who served two four-year terms on the board, defended the open-door pre-meeting practice, describing much of what transpired as "organizational" and "informational." The sessions, she said, allow commissioners time to evaluate last-minute information, in addition to establishing procedural details.
Roberts conceded that commissioners often walked the "fine line between getting information and going just a step further into what you shouldn't be doing." But Township Manager Don Berger would police the proceedings, Roberts said, stopping discussions that violated the law.
In the name of transparency, Roberts said, the board could consider changing the process. "There are things you have to do embarrassing or not in front of the public. Just because it's embarrassing doesn't mean you get to go into executive session. And if you don't like it then you shouldn't be a commissioner."
Ken Bradley who served as president for two of his 10 years on the board said "90 percent" of the discussions in the pre-meeting sessions dealt with administrative matters, but added: "[Commissioners] don't meet a half hour early to swap recipes for iced tea."
While Drezner agreed that most pre-meeting sessions dealt with "administrative" details, the one-term commissioner said township business was discussed occasionally.
Drezner disputed township solicitor James Garrity's claim at the time that the closed meetings had not violated the Sunshine Act since the board had only exchanged information, not voted or deliberated. "We did have discussions. They [Republicans] wanted to know how we [Democrats] were going to vote," Drezner said. "They wanted unanimous votes."
"I think everything should be out front and open to the public, even if it's as benign as assigning who's going to read what resolution," Drezner said. "There's no need to have that pre-meeting."
Referring to the practice of the township's school board, Drezner said any sort of organizational session should be conducted in the main meeting room.
Many, including Commissioner Glenn Schaum, president of the board, believe the open-door policy aligns the township with the Sunshine Act.
In an interview, Schaum denied Lunn's claim that commissioners deliberate township business, saying instead that the pre-meeting sessions were "a time for [commissioners] to look at our folders and reflect over what's going on that evening."
Pressed on the issue, Schaum referred to the open-door policy several times before saying "We've never really been questioned on that. I know the only time the door would be closed or we would discuss business is if there were an executive item … It's never been a topic."
Asked about the pre-meeting session last year where Lunn claims the board deliberated the development plan for the Black Horse Inn site, Schaum said: "I don't recall that."
Regardless of the open-door policy, the pre-meeting practice violates the law, said Teri Henning, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association. "Any time a quorum meets to deliberate agency business, it must do so at an open advertised meeting, unless an exception applies."
"If they're meeting to talk about what's going to happen in 20 minutes, then that should be conducted as part of the open meeting."
Henning said the open-door policy did not constitute compliance. "The advertisement is still wrong," she said. "That's the reason for the advertising requirement, so the people know when to show up, so that they can hear the deliberations, not get lucky."
"They're depriving their constituents of the opportunity to understand how decisions are reached."
Springfield Township is not alone in skirting the Sunshine Act.
Last year, members of Philadelphia City Council were found to have met behind closed doors in groups of nine or more a quorum of that body to discuss the mayor's budget plan.
Since there is no oversight agency that monitors violations, the law can be tough to enforce. If filed, complaints are generally handled in civil lawsuits. Any official found guilty may be fined $100.