New Castle News

Closer Look

March 26, 2014

Our Opinion: Recording executive sessions will limit abuse

NEW CASTLE — Whenever governing bodies have public meetings, they often opt to conduct executive sessions.

This is perfectly legal under Pennsylvania law — so long as the basic purpose for the executive session is explained to the public and so long as officials refrain from discussing matters in private that are required to be addressed in the open.

But more than a few people left on the outside of executive sessions have wondered whether the matters being addressed behind closed doors were appropriate. And based on actions taken in public, there are — at times — nagging concerns that important public matters were resolved in private, rather than in the open light of day.

Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Law is supposedly designed to keep the people’s business out in the open. Yet it is subject to abuse, because there is no effective mechanism for determining whether executive sessions are limited to their expressed, authorized purposes.

But a bill introduced in the Pennsylvania House seeks to change that. It would require that executive sessions be recorded. If there was ever a challenge to actions related to these closed-door gatherings, the record could be reviewed by a court to ensure the law was followed.

Some local officials may object to such rules. But we believe the current Sunshine Law falls well short of the notion of public accountability. To be blunt, there are times when it appears some officials prefer to operate out of public view as much as possible. And it takes a toll on the trust people have in those who represent them.

Government isn’t supposed to work this way. The public’s business should be dealt with out in the open as much as possible. While executive sessions sometimes are necessary for personnel, litigation discussions, the handling of specific student matters and a few other limited areas, there is often a desire on the part of certain officials to interpret these exceptions as broadly as possible.

In representative government, it is essential that the public understands what government is doing in terms of public matters, so that the performance of elected officials can be properly assessed. When decisions are made in secret, how can citizens tell if the people they elected to office are performing effectively?

Unfortunately, Pennsylvania has a history of lack of openness at all levels of government. It’s a legacy that has bred corruption and abuse that continues to take its toll on the commonwealth.

Requiring the recording of executive sessions won’t eliminate corruption in Pennsylvania. But it will be a step toward the accountability that’s essential in keeping government clean.

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