Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

A $100 fine, which you might be able to pay with other people's money, isn't much of a punishment for violating the Sunshine Act

Let’s say the mayor and city council want to do something sketchy (note: this is a hypothetical!). Naturally, they don’t want to discuss the matter in Council’s open session, with all kinds of pesky reporters and activists around. They want to go behind closed doors, and work out the shady details there.

A $100 fine, which you might be able to pay with other people’s money, isn’t much of a punishment for violating the Sunshine Act

Let’s say the mayor and city council want to do something sketchy (note: this is a hypothetical!). Naturally, they don’t want to discuss the matter in Council’s open session, with all kinds of pesky reporters and activists around. They want to go behind closed doors, and work out the shady details there.

Well, we have good news and bad news.

The good news is that Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act forbids them from having this behind-closed-doors meeting. The bad news is that the law has no teeth.

The punishment for violating the Sunshine Act is a $100 fine. And the law doesn’t even specify who has to pay the fine – the person in violation, or the agency. That’s not much of a disincentive for officials who want to meet in private. And quite a raw deal for taxpayers, who could end up footing a bill for being shut out of a meeting.

There are legitimate concerns about open meetings laws: Forcing officials to meet in public can arguably lead to dishonest, ineffective negotiations (because with the cameras rolling, they spend lots of time posturing). But it strikes us as silly to have a law that is practically neutralized by a lack of punishment.

A proposal has just passed the State Senate that would put improve this situation: It would raise the fine to $1,000, plus prosecution costs. And it specifies that the person who commits the violation would have to pay the fine.

Proposals like this have passed the Senate before, only to die in the House. We’ll keep an eye on this one.

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Every year, city government spends slightly more than $4 billion. Where does all that money come from? More importantly, where does it go? Are we getting the most bang for our tax buck? “It's Our Money” is a joint project between Philadelphia Daily News and WHYY, funded by the William Penn Foundation, designed to answer these questions.

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