Sunshine Act supports the public trust

Government bodies, and the elected and appointed officials that serve on them, hold the public trust in their hands.

They make decisions that impact their constituents in many ways.

The money in their wallets or pocketbooks.

The education of their kids.

The daily services citizens receive (and take for granted until there’s a problem).

The list is endless.

Being a public servant is an honorable ambition, and we applaud those citizens who step forward to serve.

But with that service comes important responsibility to be transparent about how money is spent, how policy is developed, how people are treated, how vision is established, and much more.

During the course of a public meeting by these bodies, the Sunshine Act provides for closed sessions to discuss specific personnel issues, such as discipline, but not for discussion or decisions related to general policy.

While many governments do adhere to the Sunshine Act, others do not – some knowingly, but also because public servants are not fully knowledgable about the law.

The fact is, many governments close the doors on the public under the guise of the “executive session” exemption. According to the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, about a quarter of the thousands of requests for help it receives each year from news organizations involve concerns about improperly closed “public” meetings.

After first clearly stating the reason for conducting an executive session (as required by law), we implore government bodies to hold that session either before or after a formal meeting. Holding an hours-long, closed session in the middle of an advertised public meeting interrupts the public’s ability to speak, to learn and to listen.

The reports in a recent edition of The Express regarding area governmental bodies’ practices in relation to meetings and the Sunshine Act were informational, the products of research by our reporters and experiences they’ve had while covering meetings. They were intended to inform and to educate our public servants and citizens about the Sunshine Act, about good government and good representation.

As the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association president and legal counsel have told us, the purpose of the Sunshine Act is to allow the public to witness agency decisions and, with limited exceptions, the discussions leading up to those decisions.

Yes, the privacy of individuals must be protected when warranted, and that’s partly why executive sessions are part of the law. But as many can attest, meetings among public officials that are held privately tend to produce only public controversy.

– The (Lock Haven) Express