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Allegheny

Transparency questions arise after Allegheny County Council holds another private meeting

| Monday, Feb. 27, 2017, 12:21 a.m.
Allegheny County Council President John DeFazio (Trib photo)
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Allegheny County Council President John DeFazio (Trib photo)

The Allegheny County Council skirted the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act last week when it met behind closed doors without announcing it had done so or giving the reason, a media law expert said.

The council met at 4 p.m. Tuesday, ahead of its regular meeting at 5 p.m., to discuss a personnel matter regarding county employees.

The Sunshine Act does not require notices be posted for closed-session meetings, like it does for regular meetings. However, it does require the meeting and the reason for it to be announced.

“They do have to announce that an executive session took place and the reason for excluding the public,” said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the nonprofit Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association in Harrisburg. “This announcement has to occur at the public meeting before the executive session or at the next public meeting after the session occurred. If they did not announce the reason for the executive session as required by law, it's a Sunshine Act issue.”

When asked why he did not announce it, Council President John DeFazio said he would talk to County Council Solicitor Jack Cambest about the topic.

“I think I let it slip by,” DeFazio said.

Cambest was present at the closed session, said DeFazio, though he was not present at the regular meeting. Nate Boring, an associate attorney at law firm Doran, Matta & Cambest, filled in for him.

Council has been meeting in closed session to discuss a personnel matter at nearly all of its meetings this year — usually after the regular meeting.

However, DeFazio's usual announcement of: “we're going in to closed session for personnel” is not enough, says Melewsky.

“The law requires agencies to give a meaningful explanation, and the courts have been clear that a one-word explanation like ‘personnel' is not sufficient because it doesn't enable any meaningful understanding or oversight,” said Melewsky.

It's the second time this year the council failed to abide by the Sunshine Act. In January, council Democrats, who hold a strong majority over Republicans, met in secret to select a new council member to fill a vacancy.

Theresa Clift is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-5669 or tclift@tribweb.com.

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