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Sunshine Superscam?

Attorney says closed meetings of city financial overseers may be illegal

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Seven minutes into the first public meeting of Pittsburgh's new Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, it asked the public to leave.

 

The five-member oversight board picked by state leaders to sort out the city's fiscal mess selected insurance executive James Smith as chairman, and then asked media members and assorted citizenry to leave the meeting room. "There are certain items ... that we would like to decide as a group," explained Smith.

 

"We are also going to talk about some personnel matters, and that normally falls within the purview of private meetings under the Sunshine Act," added board member Jim Roddey.

 

The Sunshine Act says that public bodies can hold closed-door "executive sessions" only when real-estate deals, personnel, litigation, collective bargaining, university admissions or matters that are deemed confidential by law are the sole topics of discussion. The legislation creating the oversight board states that the open meetings provisions "shall apply to the board."

 

Reporters grudgingly filed out, some noting that the board had already held one closed meeting, a Feb. 25 gathering that Smith described later as a "put-a-face-to-a-name" affair. About 20 minutes later, the board let the public back in and voted unanimously to hire a solicitor, Glenn Mahone of the law firm Reed Smith, assuming a contract with him can be negotiated. Smith explained that behind closed doors, the board also discussed "how we would handle" the eventual appointment of an executive director, as well as "coordination between the [oversight board] and the Act 47 administrators." The Act 47 administrators, appointed by the state Department of Community and Economic Development, are also charged with getting Pittsburgh out of financial distress.

 

"It appears that none of these discussions were appropriate for executive session," says Teri Henning, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association. Discussions on a contract with a solicitor, or on the process for choosing an executive director, wouldn't be considered personnel matters under the law, because they don't apply to "specific public officers or employees employed or appointed by the agency," says Henning. (Discussions about specific candidates for director can be held behind closed doors, she says.) "The Authority's discussions about its interaction with the Act 47 coordinators should have been public," she adds.

 

"We will be meeting frequently," said Smith after adjourning the oversight board's meeting. "Those meetings will be public -- most of them." The exceptions, he said, might include "informational meetings, for instance to hear what the Act 47 administrator has to say."

 

Asked what he would say to Pittsburghers who might be concerned about behind-closed-doors meetings, Smith said the best guarantee is the character of the board members. "I believe that this board is comprised of individuals that would not violate the Sunshine laws by having [substantive policy] discussions," he said. "We would not."

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