The Sunshine Act could have been "a weather forecast" for all Steve D'Emilio knew when he was elected a Haverford Township commissioner in 2003.
He said he never received an orientation or explanation of the law that defines which meetings, debates and votes have to be held in public. What D'Emilio learned about open meetings, he said, he learned on his own.
"Now, I actually count to see if there are five commissioners in the room. I'm paranoid about breaking the Sunshine Act," the Board of Commissioners president said yesterday.
The downside of not knowing, or applying, the law was evident on Thursday, when the Attorney General's Office issued a 34-page grand jury report detailing alleged misconduct by officials in Haverford Township in connection with the development of a 212-acre former state hospital property.
One commissioner, Fred Moran, was charged with bribery in connection with the project.
Many of the grand jury's complaints involved alleged violations of the Sunshine Act, and it issued a lengthy list of recommended changes to toughen public disclosure rules and the penalty for violations. The revisions would affect the entire state, and need the approval of the legislature and governor.
"The grand jury made it very clear in its report and analysis of this situation, the Sunshine Act is in desperate need of enhancement," said Nils Frederiksen, spokesman for the state Attorney General's Office.
Or, as the report said, "Representative democracy is dependent upon our governing bodies' engaging in public deliberation. . . . Government action, unnecessarily hidden from the citizenry, undermines the very foundation of effective democracy."
Gov. Rendell has recently proposed tougher public-access laws, and yesterday his spokesman, Chuck Ardo, said the Haverford investigation "confirms the governor's opinion that something needs to be done quickly about making government more accessible to the people."
The grand jury found that between 2002 and 2004, some Haverford commissioners failed to keep the public and fellow board members informed about the marketing and sale of the Haverford State Hospital site. They held meetings and made decisions in secret for their own political gain, including payments to lawyers, developer selection, and details of a proposed development plan.
Moran, a longtime Republican board member, was charged with bribery, theft by deception, theft by unlawful taking, and obstructing the administration of law. He is accused of asking a developer to pay the town an additional $500,000 to smooth the way for needed zoning changes.
Moran has been suspended from his job as a computer analyst at the Delaware County Courthouse without pay and with the intent to terminate, according to county officials. He is free on $10,000 bail. He remains a township commissioner.
"The Sunshine Act is littered with holes and has no teeth," said Amy B. Ginensky, a lawyer with Pepper Hamilton L.L.P. who also represents The Inquirer. "The grand jury is absolutely right, public bodies need to be seen and heard by the public."
The Sunshine Act requires citizens to have advance notice and the right to attend all meetings of government boards.
There are exceptions that include discussions of employment, discussions on strategy for collective bargaining agreements, consideration of real estate purchases, and discussions of lawsuits.
But the grand jury said there were no effective penalties for violating the law, given that it has a top fine of $100. A revised Sunshine Law should specifically address "intentional misrepresentations" and failure to publicly disclose facts about official business.
The grand jury suggested a toughened act patterned after Pennsylvania's Ethics Act, which forbids officials from using their office for personal financial gain. Penalties can riseup to $10,000 and five years in prison.
State Rep. Greg Vitali (D., Delaware), whose district includes Haverford Township, thinks the law should be reviewed with an "eye toward strengthening it," but said better open-records laws, campaign finance reform, and lobbyist disclosure laws are more of a priority.
Rep. Bryan Lentz (D., Delaware) said that there was a "real appetite" in Harrisburg for improving government and transparency and that he favors more stringent penalties.
Ginensky said boards need to be trained on what is and what is not public.
"This is not a unique situation with things being done out of the public eye," she said, noting that part of the reason it happens is ignorance and part is the "lack of teeth" in the act.
Current Haverford Commissioner Andy Lewis said the board now operates strictly by the rules, and then some.
"We cleaned out our own house," said Lewis, a Republican, who along with other board members contacted the Delaware County District Attorney's Office, which referred it to the state. "We chose not to look the other way and chose to hold them accountable for what they did."
D'Emilio pointed to a citizens' ad hoc committee that was formed to help with a development plan for the hospital property, something he said never would have happened in the past.
"Maybe this township leads the way in improving the way municipalities govern themselves," he said. "I think we are going to be a model now."
The current development plan, Haverford Reserve, would devote 40 acres to residential development and 45 acres for sports fields and public roads.