New Castle News

Mitchel Olszak

June 16, 2014

Mitchel Olszak: Government officials can’t dismiss Sunshine Law rights

NEW CASTLE — There’s a fundamental problem I frequently see with government.

It has to do with the people who hold positions of authority. Too often, they seem to overlook the real reason they are there.

In America, there’s only one legitimate purpose for government: To serve the needs and interests of the people.

In that regard, government officials are public servants. They are tasked with performing the people’s business.

This doesn’t mean government officials have to grovel before members of the public. But by no means should they lord over citizens arrogantly.

And when it comes to the law, government officials don’t get to pick and choose which aspects of it they will obey. To the contrary, more than anyone else, officials are obliged to adhere to the law.

Yet last week in Lawrence County, visitors to a conditional use hearing in Mahoning Township were threatened with prosecution by the township’s solicitor if they recorded him during the session.

Solicitor Louis Perrotta said he did not want to be recorded by those present and demanded they turn off their recording devices.

Generally under Pennsylvania law, individuals have every right to object to having someone audio record them. When it comes to recording conversations, Pennsylvania is what’s known as a two-party consent state, meaning that both parties involved in a conversation must agree to any recording of it.

But there is one notable exception to this rule, and it’s found in Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act, which governs municipal meetings, such as Mahoning’s conditional use hearing. Under the Sunshine Act, those who attend public meetings have a basic right to record them, both with video and audio. There is no presumption of privacy at a public meeting.

When questioned about his actions by the New Castle News, Perrotta insisted he had the power to prevent efforts to record his statements at the meeting. He also suggested that because those seeking to record the Mahoning session were supposedly not township residents, they lacked the right to do any taping.

However, the Sunshine Act states that a person attending a meeting — not a resident or taxpayer — has the right to make recordings. It is a power granted to citizens, not just residents.

In short, Perrotta was dead wrong to bar the recording of any public meeting. If he tries to do so in the future, the public should challenge him and alert elected officials that they are legally accountable for any denial of their rights under the law.

If Perrotta or any other person does not wish to be recorded at a public meeting, there are options. The first is to remain silent. If you don’t speak, no one can record what you say.

Alternately, Perrotta can step down as solicitor. If he cannot abide by state law, that’s an appropriate action.

However, ignoring the law, or pretending it doesn’t apply to him, won’t fly.

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Mitchel Olszak
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