Budget confab bars reporters

Mayor Nutter, who ran for office promising a more open and transparent government, yesterday barred reporters from budget talks he held with City Council.

Nutter presented reporters with an opinion written by City Solicitor Shelley Smith, which advised him that he could hold a private session as long as the group was not "deliberating or voting on agency business."

Nutter, whose staff unsuccessfully tried to keep reporters out of a budget discussion in May, said he saw no problem with keeping the press out.

"There were no decisions made," Nutter said. "This was a general discussion, which we're allowed to have."

The state Sunshine Act says that official action or deliberation by a government agency must take place in an open meeting if a quorum of the agency's members attends. Nine members of Council equal a quorum. More than nine members were present yesterday.

Nutter and Smith said that the closed-door meeting was permissible because they were having a discussion, not an "official deliberation."

But Teri Henning, general counsel of the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, disagreed. She said that all the talks that precede a decision should be considered public deliberation.

"They're suggesting that they did not deliberate," Henning said. "Deliberation is defined broadly in the act as any discussion leading up to a decision."

Nutter is planning to release a financial plan next Thursday to reduce the $841 million funding shortfall expected over the next five years. Council will have to approve his modified five-year spending plan.

To read the city solicitor's opinion, go to: http://go.philly.com/sunshine