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Discussion of Murrysville drilling ordinance closed to public

| Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Task force meetings to discuss revamping the municipal drilling ordinance won't be made public, Murrysville officials said.

The Marcellus shale task force was reconvened earlier this year after council decided to re-evaluate the municipal drilling ordinance after the state Supreme Court overruled portions of Act 13, the state drilling regulations.

Those meetings haven't been opened to the public.

“It's a volatile issue,” chief administrator Jim Morrison said. “We're very appreciative of our volunteers, and we have an obligation to let them do their work.”

That doesn't exempt the committee from following the state Sunshine Act, said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newsmedia Association, a nonprofit trade group in Harrisburg.

The act requires all committee meetings to be open to the public, Melewsky said.

“They are a body created to render advice on a matter of agency business,” Melewsky said. “There are no general exceptions that a committee gets to have a private meeting. They are stepping into the shoes and role of council.”

Morrison disagrees.

“There's no decision-making happening. They are just making a recommendation,” Morrison said.

Municipal Solicitor George Kotjarapoglus said he thinks the court is on Murrysville's side.

“If the product being delivered is something that is ripe for ‘immediate action' by the governing body, then the court may well view matter as agency providing ‘advice for action,' in which case Sunshine will likely be applied,” Kotjarapoglus wrote in an email.

“At the other end of the continuum on these ‘advise for action' cases, you have the Murrysville Task Force. Its review and report back to Council will NOT be a product that … will be received an acted upon without benefit of deliberations and a vote in an open meeting. ... there will be ample deliberations in our open meeting process no matter what the Task Force reports back.”

A similar issue arose in 2010, when the task force originally was formed. Those meetings, along with meetings of the municipal comprehensive-plan committee, were open to the public.

Councilman Dave Perry serves on the committee and agreed the meetings should be public.

“I think deliberations associated with ordinances should be a public discussion,” Perry said.

Resident Alyson Holt questioned why the meetings are closed during last week's council meeting after a private conversation with Morrison.

“(Morrison) emailed me back that the task force meetings were not open to the public and that public updates on the progress of the committee would be made at council meetings,” Holt said. “I am disappointed by this answer.”

Melewsky said it's important for residents to be able to attend committee meetings to learn about topics, especially controversial ones.

“The committee is doing all of the legwork. That's where the meat gets discussed,” she said. “If you cut off public access to committee meetings, there's no real account of why borough council is making the decision.”

Daveen Rae Kurutz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-871-2365, or dkurutz@tribweb.com.

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