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Allegheny County Council committee's closed meetings appear to skirt state law

| Thursday, March 13, 2014, 11:48 p.m.

An Allegheny County Council committee appears to violate the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act when it closes meetings to the public despite objections by the Tribune-Review, a media law expert says.

Council's Executive Committee has met three times this year. At each meeting, Council President John DeFazio, D-Shaler, has moved the committee into an executive session — kicking members of the public and reporters out of the room — without explaining why.

“It's critically important because that's the only basis the public has to why they are excluded,” said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the nonprofit Pennsylvania Newspaper Association in Harrisburg.

DeFazio said he was not aware of the law's requirements. Established when county Executive Rich Fitzgerald was council president, the Executive Committee handles issues with council's staff and the rules governing council.

“I'm only following the way we've done it,” DeFazio said. “I'm a rules man. If people can show me and prove to me it's been done wrong in the past and is still being done wrong now, I'd be happy to change it.”

DeFazio said the Executive Committee held the closed sessions to discuss staffing, salaries and job descriptions. No disciplinary matters have been discussed, he said.

Fitzgerald said the Executive Committee often met in closed sessions while he was on council. Any current issues with the committee would be council's responsibility, he said.

The Sunshine Act allows elected boards and their committees to meet in closed-door sessions to discuss litigation, personnel matters, arbitration or collective bargaining negotiations, purchasing or leasing property and for limited other reasons. The law requires members to state the purpose of the executive session.

DeFazio did not state a reason for an executive session at the Jan. 29 meeting. At the committee's meetings on Wednesday and Feb. 12, a Tribune-Review reporter objected to the executive sessions, stating that the committee was not following the Sunshine Act in its explanation for moving behind closed doors.

“I don't know if you're exactly right in that,” DeFazio said at the meeting on Wednesday in response to the objection, adding it was to discuss personnel matters. He gave a similar response at the Feb. 12 meeting.

Melewsky said a 1993 Berks County Court of Common Pleas decision made it clear that one-word explanations such as “litigation” disclose nothing about why the meeting is closed.

In its ruling, the court said, “When a board chairman tells a citizen he may not hear the board discuss certain business, he is taking liberties with the rights of that citizen, and the reason given for this interference must be genuine and meaningful, and one the citizen can understand. To permit generalized fluff would frustrate the very purpose of the Act.”

The council's solicitor, Jack Cambest, said he wasn't told about the Tribune-Review's objections. Cambest, who serves as legal counsel for several municipal boards, said he advises elected officials to give enough information so the public feels comfortable that the issue being discussed in the closed session is covered by the exceptions to the Sunshine Act.

The House State Government Committee on Wednesday heard testimony on a bill that would require government agencies to record closed meetings so a court could determine whether a Sunshine Act violation had occurred.

Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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