Pattye Benson

Community Matters

Raising the Fine on Sunshine Law Violation to $1,000 for First Offense

An interesting piece of proposed change to the Sunshine Law surfaced this week in Harrisburg. The change was passed by the House and, if passed by the Senate, would effect Tredyffrin Township and our Board of Supervisors. The State House of Representatives amended the state’s Sunshine Law by upping the fines for a first violation of the government openness law from $100 to $1,000 and to $2,000 for each subsequent violation.

The measure passed 172 to 24 and now moves to the State Senate.

Opponents of the measure said the fine is too steep for small borough and township governments and claimed the state newspaper trade association was opposed to the measure. The bill’s prime sponsor, State Rep. Babette Josephs (D-Philadelphia) said the newspaper association felt the fines should be higher.

The Sunshine Law is aimed at opening the deliberations of state and local government bodies to public scrutiny. There are some exceptions, such as personnel and security discussions that can be held outside public view. Most activities have to be conducted in public, and private meetings of government bodies that constitute a quorum are forbidden by the law. Tom Murray, editor of the Main Line Life Suburban wrote his weekly editorial on Let There Always be ‘Sunshine’ which speaks to the need to keep government open and public. Click here for Tom’s the article.

I wonder if Tredyffrin Township has ever been fined for breaking the Sunshine Law? Do any of you know the answer? And who would file the suit . . . an individual? With a fine of only $100, no one probably ever filed a suit; but at $1,000 for first offense, and $2,000 for subsequent offenses that could change. Personally, I support the newspaper association’s claim that the fine is not high enough . . . it needs to be a level that would make an impact. My guess is that a borough or municipality would be fined once and it would never happen again.

This is an nteresting topic . . . what do you think the penalty should be for breaking the Sunshine Law? Or should there be a penalty?

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  1. I think the penalty should be death of the first born. I mean, this is just another example of how we have become a lawyered up state. I mean, why can’t we all just get along, do an honest job, communicate well and play by the rules? Oh, I forgot, the world is full of Warren Kampf’s.

    More litigation, acrimony. ba humbug. Of COURSE there should be SUNSHINE… it just depresses me that we need more laws, fines, litigation…finger pointing. There will come a time that no honest man/woman will come forward to run. Then the meek and the wicked will have inherited the earth. yes pattye, fine the pants off of the supervisors. maybe one day they will be all Democrats. But then I am sure the rules won’t apply.

  2. The monetary fine appears to be criminal, not civil, in nature: “Any member of any agency who participates in a meeting with the intent and purpose by that member of violating the chapter commits a summary offense and shall, upon conviction, be sentenced to pay a fine not exceeding $100 plus costs of prosecution.” 65 Pa. C.S. § 714. Since this section talks about a “summary offense,” a “conviction” and a “sentenc[ing],” I am almost positive that it applies only to cases where a member of an agency is criminally prosecuted for violating the Act. In other words, a private citizen who brought a civil lawsuit would not be entitled to ask the court to impose a fine under § 714, whether it is $100 or $1,000.

    The Act gives the courts broad discretion to fashion any appropriate remedy in a civil suit brought by a private citizen: The courts have jurisdiction to “render declaratory judgments or to enforce this chapter by injunction or other remedy deemed appropriate by the court.” 65 Pa. C.S. § 715.

    The main “penalty” in the Act is the nullification of any action taken in violation of the Act: “Should the court determine that the meeting did not meet the requirements of this chapter, it may in its discretion find that any of all official action taken at the meeting shall be invalid.” 65 Pa. C.S. § 713.

    The biggest monetary risk in a civil case is attorney’s fees, which can be substantial: “If the court determines that any agency willfully or with wanton disregard violated a provision of this chapter, in whole or in part, the court shall award the prevailing party reasonable attorney fees and costs of litigation or an appropriate portion of the fees and costs.” 65 Pa. C.S. § 714.1.

    As for standing, a claim under the Sunshine Act “may be brought by any person where the agency whose act is complained of is located or where the act complained of occurred.” 65 Pa. C.S. § 715.

  3. So anyone could bring a complaint to the police if they believed the act had been violated?
    The exceptions are personnel (including strategy for negotiations), Real estate, ligitation, and other matters which would involve privileged information regarding an individual.

    This seems like a silly “upping” of what up to now has been a huge wall to climb — as proving a violation would require those present to admit to the violation…so does the fine get assessed to the body or to individuals?

  4. Re-posting from old blog:

    To make this easier to understand, consider this hypothetical: Let’s say the Board of Supervisors got together in a conference room outside of public view and decided to enter into a contract with a landscaping company to prune trees on Township property, but did not discuss or vote on the contract at a public meeting. Once the contract became public knowledge, anyone could go the police or local prosecutor and file a criminal complaint alleging that the Board violated the Act. It would then be up to the prosecutor to determine whether to bring criminal charges against the members of the Board. If the prosecutor brought charges and obtained a conviction, the Act says that the members of the agency – i.e., the individual Board members – would have to pay the fine. The fine would be paid, I think, to either the court or the prosecutor’s office.

    At the same time, any resident of the Township also could bring a separate CIVIL action against the Township. If the resident prevailed, the court could invalidate the contract with the landscaper. The court also could order any “other remedy deemed appropriate by the court.” If the court determined that the Board members acted “willfully,” the court also could order the Township to reimburse the resident for his attorney’s fees.

    Proving a violation under this hypothetical would not be difficult. You would have the contract. And you would have all of the minutes and video from the Board meetings showing that the Board did not discuss or vote on the contract at a public meeting.

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