Daily meetings won't solve 'Sunshine' issues
The proposal for a public meeting every business day in Northumberland County to protect the commissioners from possible Sunshine Law violations is impractical and, in fact, may further harm the intent of the law.
A better approach would be to pay closer attention to the dual roles the commissioners have, that of administrative and legislative duties.
Doug Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, helped put the issue into perspective. When the commissioners make a publicly deliberated decision that, for example, spells out county policy, they and county employees can then move forward in making administrative decisions - without further public deliberation - that support that policy.
For example, if commissioners approve a contract to build a new bridge and, during the course of construction, a slight change is needed for the project, there's no need to "run back to the courthouse" for a public meeting, as Hill put it. The contract approval comes with administrative capability of the commissioners or a county employee to make further decisions.
However, should there be a major concern - the commissioners are told the construction is encroaching on a wetland, Hill gave as an example - they may want to "stop talking," convene a meeting and make their next decision a publicly deliberated one.
Understanding where these administrative and legislative lines are drawn - albeit in gray areas at times - can best protect the commissioners.
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Our key concern with a daily public meeting, meanwhile, is that of public participation. As the commissioners themselves have recognized by holding a few meetings in the evening this year rather than at 1 p.m. per routine, it is difficult for citizens to get to daytime public meetings. It would be nearly impossible for the average citizen to attend a daily meeting - and yet virtually any topic could be deliberated. At least with the two-meetings-per-month schedule the commissioners have now, the public can assume that all pertinent matters from the past two weeks will be on that one agenda.
Further, it's unrealistic to expect that county managers can make a daily meeting, and after consecutive sessions, a given meeting may only last a few minutes; what a potential waste of time. The same applies to the demands this would place on the media.
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It's unrealistic to think elected officials don't "deliberate" in private, even if unintentionally. But it's also unrealistic to think a daily meeting would solve all issues related to the Sunshine Act.