"There is nothing that government does that cannot be done ethically and transparently. Nothing." -- Mayor Nutter during his Jan. 7 inauguration speech.
Mayor Nutter ran for office pushing for transparency in City Hall business. He called for it on the day he took office. But Nutter and his administration turned testy today when the media called him on it. Nutter assembled 15 members of City Council in his cabinet room for a briefing on the fiscal year 2009 budget and five-year financial plan. With nine or more members present, Council has a quorum. Reporters walked in and declared it a public meeting.
Nutter's staff disagreed and, joined by a police officer, asked reporters to leave. The reporters refused. After a delay, Nutter arrived and said his understanding of the state's Sunshine Act on open meetings was that he could call a private briefing. "I'm not going to waste anybody's time arguing about it," said Nutter, adding that he reserves the right to brief a majority of Council members in the future. So the reporters stayed for the 30-minute meeting.
After the meeting, Clay Armbrister, the mayor's chief of staff, told reporters: "I'm not happy" and promised to have city attorneys look into the matter. City Solicitor Shelley Smith then started calling reporters, explaining her view that the "mere fact that information is exchanged and debated informally" does not rise to the level of government deliberation as defined by the Sunshine Act that would require the meeting to be open to the public.
Teri Henning, general counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, had a different take. She said the attendance and participation of Council members added up to deliberation under the state law since they will one day have to vote on the city's budget. "The intent of the Sunshine Act is to allow the public to observe the discussions and deliberations leading up to a decision," Henning said.