Add audio option to legitimize executive sessions
As demonstrated regularly by local municipal councils and school boards, government bodies tend to resort to closed executive sessions on matters that should be discussed in public.
State law provides for closed sessions to discuss specific personnel issues, such as discipline or legal matters, but not for development of general policy. Many governments close the doors on the public under the guise of that exemption, however.
According to the Pennsylvania News-Media Association, about a quarter of the thousands of requests for help it receives each year from news organizations involve improperly closed public meetings.
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To address the abuse, state Rep. Rick Saccone, a Washington County Republican, has introduced a bill to tighten the prohibition on executive sessions and hold public officials accountable for what they improperly discuss in private.
It would require public bodies to record executive sessions and maintain the tapes for at least a year. When the legitimacy of an executive session is challenged, a judge will be able to review the record to determine if the session complied with the narrow exemptions in the Sunshine Act.
Open meetings are the very least that Pennsylvanians deserve from their elected and appointed government bodies. The Legislature should approve the Saccone bill to further improve government transparency.
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In the interim, we would encourage municipal boards to review with their solicitors the part of the Sunshine Act involving executive sessions to be sure they're governing appropriately. Too many times, the letter of the law is lost in the complexities of a given case, but that's one of the reasons municipalities pay for professional legal advice.
What happens too often with executive sessions is that the secrecy of the discussion of a legal or personnel matter is also applied to the details of the final decision. That is not the intent.