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Franklin Regional board to weigh reporters' objections to meeting

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By Amanda Dolasinski
Wednesday, June 19, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

Franklin Regional school board will look into objections that its directors met privately regarding the appointment of a director to fill a vacancy, its president said on Tuesday.

Herb Yingling said he will work with the district solicitor to “straighten out” concern over the meeting. The move comes after Trib Total Media reporters objected to the private meeting, citing the Pennsylvania Open Meetings Law, commonly known as the Sunshine Act.

During the public board meeting Monday night, Yingling announced the board had met privately to discuss a vacancy left when Joe Seymour resigned earlier this month. Solicitor Jack Cambest defended the private meeting, citing case law from 1994, before the Sunshine Act was amended.

Reporters from the Tribune-Review and Murrysville Star objected, saying the amendment prohibits such discussions from being held during secret sessions.

Cambest cited the 1994 case of the Cumberland Publisher's Inc. v. Carlisle School Board. In 1996, the Legislature passed an amended version of the meetings law to ban private discussions of appointments to public boards.

Agencies that hold private deliberations regarding filling a vacancy to an elected office risk liability for violating the Sunshine Act, and could face civil and criminal penalties, said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.

“Simply put, the Cumberland holding is no longer good law and the Sunshine Act prohibits private discussions about filling vacancies in elected office,” Melewsky said. “The law is really clear on this point.”

When reached Tuesday, Yingling said he would review the amended act with Cam-best and the board would “straighten out” any issues.

“We went by the advice of our solicitor,” Yingling said.

In an interview on Tuesday, Cambest said there was no discussion during a private meeting. Rather, he said, the board went over which one of six names to put on the agenda for a vote.

“They had a consensus on who to put in the blank on the agenda to vote in the public meeting,” Cambest said. “The only thing that occurred in executive session was to put a name on the agenda.”

It is the district's policy to put only names of candidates that will be approved on the agenda, Cambest said. The policy is in place so “not to embarrass anyone,” he said.

During Monday's meeting, directors unanimously voted to appoint Charles Hergenroeder III to fill the vacancy. There were no comments from directors or the public.

Mary Bach, who applied for the vacancy, said she was disheartened there was no public discussion. “I'm very disappointed in the process,” Bach said. “I thought the process was flawed.”

After the vote was taken, Yingling read the names of five other candidates who submitted letters of interest for the position. One was eliminated because the candidate had never been a board director before, Yingling said.

Other candidates were Bill Evans, John Koury, Gary Siegel and Lynn Gurrentz .

After the meeting, Yingling told reporters Hergenroeder met qualifications to serve on the board.

“He's very effective,” Yingling said. “He never missed a meeting. He has no political ax to grind on either side.”

Hergenroeder submitted his letter dated June 12 to the district on letterhead from the Hergenroeder, Rega, Ewing and Kennedy law firm in Pittsburgh. He practices real estate law, according to his biography on the firm's website. He did not return requests for comment on Tuesday.

Hergenroeder will serve through Nov. 3.

Amanda Dolasinski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6220 or adolasinski@tribweb.com.

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