Open Meetings

What do the sidewalks at St. Davids and Former Police Chief Andy Chambers have in common?

What do the St. Davids sidewalks and former Police Chief Andy Chambers have in common? There is an eerie similarity between a vote of the Tredyffrin Township Board of Supervisors on January 25, 2010 and a recent T/E School Board vote of January 7.

January 25, 2010 BOS Meeting:  Even though there was a signed land development agreement between Tredyffrin Township and St. Davids Golf Club requiring sidewalks, the Tredyffrin’s supervisors approved the return of $25K escrow money to the country club; removing the sidewalk agreement. Besides suggested Home Rule Charter violations surrounding the return of the escrow money, there was the procedural problem that the proposal had not appeared on the BOS meeting’agenda.  Against the objections of many residents and some of the supervisors, the motion carried 4-3.  For the record, Bob Lamina, Paul Olson, Warren Kampf and EJ Richter voted in favor of the motion and Michelle Kichline, Phil Donohue and John DiBuonaventuro voted against the motion.

After much media publicity, many letters to the editor, accusations of Home Rule Charter and Sunshine Act violations, claims of deal-making and general resident outrage, the supervisors reversed and rescinded their decision at the following Board of Supervisors meeting in March 2010.  Public comment is guaranteed by the Sunshine Act and the public’s rights were violated by the St. Davids sidewalk vote of January 25, 2010.

Fast forward to January 7, 2013:  Instead of the township failing to notify the public of an intended motion on its meeting agenda, it was the T/E School Board who failed to notify the public.  On January 7, the Board held a special meeting for the primary purpose to consider the 2013-14 preliminary budget proposal.  At the meeting, the School Board voted to apply for Act 1 exceptions beyond the 1.7% allowable tax cap.

A consent agenda listed on the January 7 meeting agenda included the approval of December 3 meeting minutes, monthly financial reports, routine personnel actions, etc. but made no mention of anything safety-related such as enhancements or the hiring of a District safety consultant. However, as we later learned, the hiring of former police chief Andy Chambers as the District Security Consultant (hourly rate – $125) was approved …  as it was ‘last-minute’ included along with the other items in the consent agenda. The agenda did not notify the public that the School Board would discuss anything safety-related at the special meeting, let alone the hiring of a ‘security consultant’.

Someone needs to explain to me how the actions of the School Board on January 7 are any different from the actions of the Board of Supervisors of January 25, 2010.  Both of these examples speak to the process of our government. The fact is that the Board of Supervisors vote of two years ago was not about sidewalks in the same way that the School Board’s vote of January 7 is not about the hiring of Andy Chambers as the District’s security consultant.  Rather, it is about transparency and open meetings; the basis for positive discussions between citizens and their elected officials.  Government decisions should not be made in secret.

The Sunshine Act defines when government bodies must conduct official business in public and private, when they should allow public comment, and how and when to advertise meetings. Executive closed meetings can only be called for the following six reasons:

  • Discussions of matters involving employment or performance of officers or employees of the agency, provided that any affected individual is given the opportunity to request, in writing, that the meeting be held in public.
  • Meetings involving collective bargaining, labor relations, and arbitration.
  • To consider the purchase or lease of real property.
  • matters falling under the attorney-client privilege regarding litigation or issues where an identifiable complaint is expected to be filed.
  • To discuss agency business which, if discussed in public, would lead to the disclosure of information protected by law, including ongoing investigations and information exempt under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know
  • To discuss matters of academic standing or admission at state schools

Responding to follow-up comments on the topic of the Sunshine Act, Keith Knauss, school board member of the Unionville Chadds Ford School District (UCF) offered this comment on Community Matters —

The Pennsylvania Sunshine Act requires all public agencies to take all official actions and conduct all deliberations leading up to official actions at public meetings. If the board met in executive session and deliberated on hiring Mr. Chambers, then they probably violated the Sunshine Act even though the official vote was taken in open session. It doesn’t matter if it is a contract or not. We’re conjecturing that the board deliberated (illegally) in executive session and based on that deliberation, took an official action to disburse funds to Mr. Chambers. We, of course, can only conjecture since the meeting was closed to the public.
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The current Sunshine Act took effect on January 3, 1987. This law replaces the old Open Meetings Laws of 1957 and 1974, Under the old law, public agencies were required to hold open meetings only if votes were taken or official policy adopted. This led to the frequent abuse of discussing and deciding issues in so-called “workshop” sessions, with the official public meetings being relegated to conducting formal votes on issues already decided in advance. The current Act requires that any deliberations leading up to official actions also take place at public meetings. Municipal governing bodies have no authority, either under the municipal codes or the Sunshine Act, to conduct “workshop” sessions.’

Question … At the upcoming January 28 School Board meeting, will the Board take responsibility for their January 7 action and reverse their decision to hire Andy Chambers as the District Security Consultant?

If the Board understands the Sunshine Act, and supports the importance of open meetings, the choice they make on January 28 will be simple.  The Board accepts responsibility for the situation and takes the necessary steps to correct the situation; reversing the decision and then appropriately advertising the matter for public discussion.

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