Sunshine and the county

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A claim that a government agency has violated Pennsylvania's Sunshine Act is not rare, but taking that accusation to court is.

Shamokin's David F. Kaleta did just that in his Sept. 17 lawsuit against Northumberland County and two of its three commissioners, Stephen Bridy and Vinny Clausi. One of two counts in the suit is that the Sunshine Act was violated in the county decision, delivered by letter, to ban Kaleta from county-owned Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area (AOAA) land. Judge Charles Saylor ruled last week that he agreed, and the county has said it will appeal.

The crux of the law is defined in Section 702, Legislative findings and declaration: "The General Assembly finds that the right of the public to be present at all meetings of agencies and to witness the deliberation, policy formulation and decision making of agencies is vital to the enhancement and proper functioning of the democratic process, and that secrecy in public affairs undermines the faith of the public in government and the public's effectiveness in fulfilling its role in a democratic society."

Under Section 703, meanwhile, is a definition for "agency business:" "The framing, preparation, making or enactment of laws, policy or regulations, the creation of liability by contract or otherwise, or the adjudication of rights, duties and responsibilities, but not including administrative action."

That final phrase - "but not including administrative action" - may be part of what the county will argue in its appeal. Administrative action is defined as "The execution of policies related to persons or things as previously authorized or required by official action of the agency adopted at an open meeting of the agency. The term does not, however, include the deliberation of agency business."

The county has pointed to minutes from a Nov. 16, 2011, meeting at which a resolution was passed that gives the planning department, from where the Kaleta letter was issued, the authority to "issue permits for events on county-owned property." It seems to fit the definition of "administrative action" in the Sunshine Act in that it is a "policy" "as previously authorized" and "adopted at an open meeting." The question may be whether the court believes action to ban an individual is part of management of "events" on the property.

Kaleta's Sunshine Act violation claim, while the only one that's part of a lawsuit, is the third one made publicly this year against Northumberland County. Rick Shoch, the third commissioner, believes the law was violated in a "closed-door decision" in June to destroy Clausi's computer hard drive, which was county property. County District Attorney Tony Rosini claimed at a Feb. 2 prison board meeting that all three commissioners violated the Sunshine Act by not holding a public meeting before suspending two prison supervisors.

Northumberland County, of course, is not the only government agency in Pennsylvania to face questions about the Sunshine Act. Most other suspected violations don't reach the courts or, for that matter, make front page headlines, but that doesn't mean they aren't happening, either out of ignorance or outright disrespect for the law.

(Heintzelman, editor of The News-Item, writes "The Week In News" for each Saturday edition.)

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