Technology has certainly streamlined how people talk to one another.
With the flick of a finger on a phone, people can communicate something and get a response in minutes.
It’s convenient, for sure, but our public officials must make sure they are not inadvertently violating the state’s transparency laws when they share information amongst one another that way.
At last week’s Charleroi Council agenda meeting, Councilman Larry Celaschi said he had that concern, offering up printouts of group text messages sent by council members. He contended that they were conducting discussions about borough business during those conversations, and said he felt they were violating the Sunshine Act.
The Sunshine Act provides that public agencies like city or borough councils, county commissioners, school boards or township supervisors, must conduct discussions about their business in public. A quorum of those elected officials (typically one more than half) cannot hold discussions about official business in private, hammer out what they are going to do, and then execute their plans in public.
The purpose of the law is to have elected officials engage in open discussions so that the public has the opportunity to be fully informed of their reasons and intentions. There isn’t an exception to the law if the discussions are held via a group text conversation.
The Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association puts it pretty simply: “If there is a quorum of an agency discussing agency business, it is a ‘meeting’ for the purposes of the Sunshine Act.” And meetings must be open.
The PNA further notes that a “meeting” can happen anywhere, including via a group text or email.
Council President Jerry Jericho last week denied that any discussions that ran afoul of the Sunshine Act had occurred.
The text messages, he said, were “strictly informational.”
But PNA media law counsel Melissa Melewsky said there is no “informational” exception to the act.
“If there is a quorum (of council members) discussing agency business, the Sunshine Act applies regardless of whether that discussion takes place in person or via electronic communication technology,” she said.
Jericho also said four new members joined council, and all are still learning the nuances of what they can or cannot do. While he said they had good intentions, and we can appreciate that, it’s incumbent upon those in office to educate themselves about the law and then follow it.
Borough Solicitor Steve Toprani said he intended to go through the texts Celaschi provided to determine if any violations occurred.
In the meantime, perhaps elected officials everywhere could regard this as a reminder that there is no exception to the Sunshine Act when the majority of a board discusses business – no matter what means they use to do it.