State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

Adding a back door to closed-door meetings

Written by Mary Wilson, Capitol Bureau Chief | Sep 3, 2013 9:10 PM

A state House proposal would make closed-door meetings of certain governmental agencies a little less of a black box by tightening up the rules of executive sessions.

Public authorities like city councils, school boards, and even the General Assembly can hold "executive sessions," or private meetings (party caucuses not included), when discussing things like litigation, labor contracts, and confidential information under Pennsylvania's Sunshine Act. But Rep. Rick Saccone (R-Allegheny) said the law's list of exemptions is too permissive in allowing meetings shrouded from public view.

"I receive complaints often, and I've seen these things when I was on a school board myself," Saccone said. "People go into executive session maybe under the guise of one subject and start talking about other subjects that really should be discussed in public."

Saccone says one particular exemption - allowing for private meetings for any discussion of employees - is too broad. "Anytime they're talking about personnel, the elected officials can call an executive session, go behind closed doors, under the guise of talking about personnel, which is a very broad subject area," Saccone said. His proposal injects a bit more specificity.

His measure would also require that executive sessions are recorded, and the files kept for a year, to help a judge or impartial third party settle any challenges of the closed-door status of meetings. He said he doesn't think it would be costly.

"Usually the meetings are taped anyway," said Saccone, "and so this would just be another cassette tape of just taping the executive session."

Saccone's bill also adds one exception to the list already in state law: any discussions of security or emergency preparedness, under his bill, could still be held out of the public eye.

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