CURWENSVILLE – The Curwensville Borough Council continues to take exception to reporters questioning their executive sessions.
At Monday’s meeting, members of council and members of the media debated the council’s practice of calling executive sessions.
After working through the meeting’s agenda, the council reached item 10, which stated “Executive Session: Personnel, Enforcement.”
Amanda Thompson from WOKW 102.9 FM asked the council to clarify what “enforcement” means and council members Sara Curulla and Dave Donahue questioned why Thompson was asking.
Thompson said “enforcement” could encompass several different departments, such as law enforcement, code enforcement or animal enforcement. Curulla then answered, “code enforcement.”
As the members of the media and the public were exiting the meeting, Donahue commented that he did not know why members of the media were continuing to question the council’s executive sessions.
GANT News Reporter Kimberly Finnigan responded that under the Sunshine Law, if the council wishes to call an executive session, they must give the reason why that session is being called.
She also noted that the council must provide enough information for the media and the public to determine whether the executive session falls within provisions of the Sunshine Law.
Under the provisions of Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act, commonly referred to as the “Sunshine Law,” an executive session may only be held under specific provisions.
Those provisions include: personnel matters, discussion regarding collective bargaining, consideration of the purchase or lease of real property, to consult with an attorney regarding possible or ongoing litigation or to discuss business that would reveal information otherwise considered confidential or privileged under law.
In regards to personnel matters, the Act specifically states: “To discuss any matter involving the employment, appointment, termination of employment, terms and conditions of employment, evaluation of performance, promotion or disciplining of any specific prospective public officer or employee or current public officer or employee employed or appointed by the agency, or former public officer or employee, provided, however, that the individual employees or appointees whose rights could be adversely affected may request, in writing, that the matter or matters be discussed at an open meeting.
At the meeting, Donahue then told Finnigan: “I’ve been on council for seven months, and this has never been a problem before.”
Finnigan answered that the council has “sat at that table and openly admitted to violating the Sunshine Law,” which is why the media is obligated to continue to question their actions. Curulla denied the council admitted to violating the Sunshine Law.
“You have a solicitor, don’t you? You might want to talk to them about this, because you’re doing a disservice to your constituents. I’ve been a reporter for 16 years, I’m very familiar with the Sunshine Law,” Finnigan said.
“You have to provide enough information so we can determine whether the executive session is legal or not. This isn’t just for the media, it’s for everyone in the public, as well.”
Curulla answered that the council has spoken to their solicitor who said the media is wrong.
According to the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act, in regards to requesting specific details about the executive session, the legality of requesting such information was decided in The Reading Eagle Co. v. Council of the City of Reading, 1993, which was upheld on appeal.
According to the declaratory judgement in the case, at a public meeting of the Reading City Council on April 21, 1992, the council announced an executive session to discuss matters “of litigation.”
A reporter from The Reading Eagle newspaper objected to the closed meeting because the litigation matters were not announced with specificity, but the executive session was held anyway.
The Reading City Council maintained that it must only restate the words of the statute, for example, “for litigation,” when announcing an executive session.
The Reading Eagle argued that the reason given for the executive session must be more specific, allowing the public to identify the matter to be discussed.
The courts upheld the Reading Eagle’s claim and found that: “By requiring that the executive session can only be held when reasons are given, the General Assembly intended that the public be able to determine from the reason given whether they are being properly excluded from the session.”
When the Curwensville council reconvened following the executive session, no official action was taken.
Following adjournment of the meeting, Thompson asked why the council did not vote to approve the minutes of the Oct. 22 meeting. Thompson was told that no minutes of that meeting had been taken.
This response prompted Thompson, Finnigan and Progress Reporter Diane Byers to file Right to Know requests for copies of the minutes of the Oct. 22 meeting.
According to a previously-published GANT News report, at that meeting, Thompson had again questioned the council’s decision to call an executive session.
When Thompson requested more specific information about why the council was calling an executive session, Curulla responded with “the employees,” which prompted Thompson to formally protest the executive session, as it is a potential violation of the Sunshine Law and Thompson requested that her protest be officially recorded in the minutes of the meeting.
The reporters covering the Curwensville Borough Council meetings began questioning the council’s decision to call executive sessions beginning in August.
At the Aug. 27 meeting, the council called an executive session for “finance and personnel.” When the council returned to open session, Byers asked why items listed under new business, specifically, a telephone system to allow employees to clock in and out using their cell phones; a computer for the police department (including quotes); the Tour De Susquehanna Bike Race; and “no parking signs” installed on Swoop Street were not discussed at the open meeting. Curulla told Byers that the items had been discussed in the executive session.
Byers told the council that those items could not legally be discussed in executive session, and in doing so, the council had violated the Sunshine Law.
As reporters left the August meeting, they were allegedly told “yeah, we did it, go ahead and fine us,” as reported in a WOKW 102.9 news article.
Fines for a first-time violation of the Sunshine Law can be as high as $100 per each council member in attendance at the meeting where the violation occurred.
Another violation of the Sunshine Law is believed to have occurred when the council discussed the 2019 budget without members of the press or the public present in September.