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Metcalfe backs effort to tighten state's Sunshine Act

| Saturday, March 29, 2014, 12:28 p.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Jack Cohen on the front porch of the Butler County Tourism & Convention Bureau in Zelienople Tuesday July 30, 2013.

A local lawmaker is supporting legislation that would restrict what publicly funded agencies can talk about in private, coming on the heels of a Butler County tourism group that found itself under scrutiny from advocates of transparency.

“There have been concerns over the years,” said state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry. “Some local officials have been using executive sessions to talk about issues that should be talked about in the light of the public eye.”

The Butler County Tourism and Convention Bureau changed its bylaws this month to say it would follow the state's Sunshine Act, which governs what business is conducted before the public. Bureau Executive Director Jack Cohen said the board never intended to stop, as some people believed after the agency's board in February made rule changes designed to streamline operations.

Cohen said the board removed a section from the bylaws in February stipulating it follow the Sunshine Act before reducing the annual membership meetings to three from four, eliminating the membership committee, turning over recruitment to the board of directors and dropping the requirement for a second signature on checks exceeding $500.

The board's latest change to the bylaws also requires two signatures on checks more than $1,000.

Cohen, the board president and the board treasurer are the only officials authorized to sign checks. Last month, the board eliminated a $500 threshold.

Cohen said the bureau, with an annual budget of $1.3 million, isn't a government agency, but a nonprofit, so it didn't believe it had to abide by the Sunshine Act.

He said, however, the intent was always to “voluntarily” follow it.

The board said it would enter executive sessions to only discuss legal matters, employment issues and the sale or lease of properties, as allowed under the law.

“We do everything above board, and we always will,” Cohen said.

Metcalfe said he believes that the tourism agency should fall under the Sunshine Act, since its funding is directed by the county commissioners.

“If you're receiving tax dollars, you should be under the Sunshine Law,” Metcalfe said.

Metcalfe is supporting legislation from Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Elizabeth Township, that would narrow the scope on what publicly funded bodies could discuss in private.

For example, Metcalfe said, discussions about an individual employee could remain in executive session, while overall employment issues or evaluation processes would have to be talked about in public.

“The public should be able to sit down with a school board and local government and say, ‘What's the policy to make sure staff are producing during the workday?' ” Metcalfe said.

The bill also would require state and local agencies to record executive sessions so that a court could decide whether the body violated the law if challenged by a citizen.

Metcalfe is pushing for a committee vote on the bill.

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or bvidonic@tribweb.com.

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