Council members emerged from their closed door meeting in Verna's office around 3:45 p.m. to announce that they had only been talking about "administrative" matters -- chiefly, whether Council would hold budget hearings out in the neighborhoods, and if so, where.
"I think we can talk about Council process without having the press in the room," Majority Leader Marian B. Tasco said after the meeting. There were at least 11 members in the room.
The only problem with that interpretation is that it doesn't match the state Sunshine Law, said Barry Kauffman, executive director of the state watchdog group, Common Cause of Pennsylvania.
"I’m not aware of any exemption for administrative matters – that’s public information," said Kauffman, as he ticked off the exceptions for when a quorum of a public body can meet behind closed doors. Those reasons include labor negotiations, personnel matters, real estate purchases or leases, and litigation. (See a copy of the law below)
"They should have not closed that meeting," Kauffman said. "What it would suggest is that they’re saying something different in public than they’re saying in private."
The private meeting continues an ongoing battle between reporters and Council over what consitutes a public meeting. Mayor Nutter agreed to go public with budget briefings this year after conducting them in private with Council in the fall. Nutter has promised an open process, but Council called their meeting after Council leadership met with Nutter on similar budget issues in the morning.
"If this is against the law, it is news to me," said Verna, who said Council still has not been giving numbers about the budget. Verna said there was some discussion among Council members that they should invite the press in, even though some felt "there's nothing there."
Four different Council members interviewed about the meeting said it was about the budget process. "To be honest with you, it never even occurred to me that is hould be an issue," Verna said.
At least nine of 17 members of City Council - enough to constitute a quorum - are meeting right now behind closed doors inside Council President Anna Verna's office to discuss the budget "process."
That much has been confirmed by Verna's spokesman, Tony Radwanksi.
Verna called Council members up to her fourth floor office following an earlier meeting between Council leadership and the mayor inside the mayor's office.
Radwanski said the Council members are talking about the public input process for the budget, and not discussing legislation, and that therefore the meeting is not public.
Unanswered, however, is what exactly Council members are talking about that cannot be discussed in public.
Members began streaming into Verna's office beginning at 2 p.m. Among those sighted were Frank DiCicco, Donna Reed Miller and Maria Quinonez Sanchez.
We include a copy of the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act on open meetings below. There is not execption for administrative meetings:
Section 704. Open meetings
Official action and deliberations by a quorum of the members of an agency shall take place at a meeting open to the public unless closed under section 707 (relating to exceptions to open meetings), 708 (relating to executive sessions) or 712 (relating to General Assembly meetings covered).
Section 705. Recording of votes
In all meetings of agencies, the vote of each member who actually votes on any resolution, rule, order, regulation, ordinance or the setting of official policy must be publicly cast and, in the case of roll call votes, recorded.
Section 706. Minutes of meetings, public records and recording of meetings
Written minutes shall be kept of all open meetings of agencies. The minutes shall include:
(1) The date, time and place of the meeting.
(2) The names of members present.
(3) The substance of all official actions and a record by individual member of the roll call votes taken.
(4) The names of all citizens who appeared officially and the subject of their testimony.
Section 707. Exceptions to open meetings
(a) Executive session. An agency may hold an executive session under section 708 (relating to executive sessions).
(b) Conference. An agency is authorized to participate in a conference which need not be open to the public. Deliberation of agency business may not occur at a conference.
(c) Certain working sessions. Boards of auditors may conduct working sessions not open to the public for the purpose of examining, analyzing, discussing and deliberating the various accounts and records with respect to which such boards are responsible, so long as official action of a board with respect to such records and accounts is taken at a meeting open to the public and subject to the provisions of this chapter.
Section 708. Executive sessions
(a) Purpose. An agency may hold an executive session for one or more of the following reasons:
(1) To discuss any matter involving the employment, appointment, termination of employment, terms and conditions of employment, evaluation of performance, promotion or disciplining of any specific prospective public officer or employee or current public officer or employee employed or appointed by the agency, or former public officer or employee, provided, however, that the individual employees or appointees whose rights could be adversely affected may request, in writing, that the matter or matters be discussed at an open meeting. The agency's decision to discuss such matters in executive session shall not serve to adversely affect the due process rights granted by law, including those granted by Title 2 (relating to administrative law and procedure). The provisions of this paragraph shall not apply to any meeting involving the appointment or selection of any person to fill a vacancy in any elected office.
(2) To hold information, strategy and negotiation sessions related to the negotiation or arbitration of a collective bargaining agreement or, in the absence of a collective bargaining unit, related to labor relations and arbitration.
(3) To consider the purchase or lease of real property up to the time an option to purchase or lease the real property is obtained or up to the time an agreement to purchase or lease such property is obtained if the agreement is obtained directly without an option.
(4) To consult with its attorney or other professional advisor regarding information or strategy in connection with litigation or with issues on which identifiable complaints are expected to be filed.
(5) To review and discuss agency business which, if conducted in public, would violate a lawful privilege or lead to the disclosure of information or confidentiality protected by law, including matters related to the initiation and conduct of investigations of possible or certain violations of the law and quasi-judicial deliberations.
(6) For duly constituted committees of a board or council of trustees of a State-owned, State-aided or State-related college or university or community college or of the Board of Governors of the State System of Higher Education to discuss matters of academic admission or standings.
(b) Procedure. The executive session may be held during an open meeting, at the conclusion of an open meeting, or may be announced for a future time. The reason for holding the executive session must be announced at the open meeting occurring immediately prior or subsequent to the executive session. If the executive session is not announced for a future specific time, members of the agency shall be notified 24 hours in advance of the time of the convening of the meeting specifying the date, time, location and purpose of the executive session.
(c) Limitation. Official action on discussions held pursuant to subsection (a) shall be taken at an open meeting. Nothing in this section or section 707 (relating to exceptions to open meetings) shall be construed to require that any meeting be closed to the public, nor shall any executive session be used as a subterfuge to defeat the purposes of section 704 (relating to open meetings).
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