By David Loomis
INDIANA – Good news: Indiana County commissioners on Wednesday convened a public meeting at which they signaled belated awareness of state law – specifically, Section 710.1(a) of Title 65, the statute governing public participation in the public’s business:
“The Sunshine Act gives the public the right to comment on issues that are or may be before the board,” read the “public comment” item on the commissioners’ Feb. 24 agenda. Further, it continued, the board “must provide a reasonable opportunity for residents and/or taxpayers to comment on an issue before a decision takes place.”
The board majority’s change of mind was welcome following Chairman R. Michael Keith’s capricious announcement at the start of the board’s Feb. 10 meeting that public comments would be sharply curtailed. Persistent citizens were effectively gagged.
The new, improved public-comment policy fudged the question of whether the board’s majority would continue to limit public comment to “actionable” agenda items only. (On Wednesday’s agenda, the public-comment period and a Covid-19 report were not labeled actionable — an irony that appeared lost among the board’s majority.)
The irony is that the board’s leadership has been criticized for lack of action and lack of communication on the public health crisis that has claimed 158 Indiana County lives, many of them during the grievously incompetent and irresponsible administration of the previous U.S. president. That leadership lacuna in the White House led local governments to the forefront of emergency response, and citizens looked to them for help.
BUT IF INDIANA COUNTY was much help, how would we know? Commissioners’ March 2020 pandemic plan prioritized public communication. But execution of the plan fell short of expectation. The letter and spirit of the state’s open-meetings law seem to have eluded county authorities, led by the commissioners.
In May 2020, commissioners announced an Indiana County COVID-19 Recovery Task Force and released a membership list. “Maintaining open and active lines of communication with our community partners and constituents is essential,” read the document’s opening sentence.
The 18 listed task force members – led by county commissioners — were nearly unanimously local Republican authorities and officials, according to county registration records. Citizens and civic organizations were not represented.
Thus, the task-force approach to crisis communication appeared to be top-down. And mostly mum: In practice the group ignored the cardinal rules of crisis communication: Tell it all, tell it fast, and tell it truthfully — including telling what you don’t know.
As the local task force appeared to struggle with its task, The HawkEye emailed county commissioner Chairman Keith to request meeting schedules and meeting minutes of the task force. That was on July 27.
On Feb. 19, Commissioner Robin Gorman responded with two emailed documents. They were reconstructed personal and “informal” notes — not minutes — of two task force meetings in late May 2020. The notes included no record of attendance.
“This group is not a formal body of any official capacity,” Ms. Gorman wrote. “It is a group of leaders that have agreed to come together to share information to better enhance their awareness to better assist and inform their respective customers/constituencies. There are no bylaws, officers, rules of order, etc., and therefore no record of official record.”
Ms. Gorman said the same about a spinoff group formed late last year. REACH, as the spinoff was called, also has gone largely unrecorded and unscheduled, and the public has been uninvited, Ms. Gorman reported in a Dec. 21 email.
“The most common and insidious one of all,” the association writes, is “the one we call, ‘It wasn’t a meeting, it was a (insert any other noun here).’ ”
The association’s legal counsel elaborated in a Feb. 23 email.
“What is clear is that when an agency, like a county, forms an advisory committee and that committee is formed to ‘render advice or take official action’ on matters of agency business, that committee is an ‘agency’ for purposes of the Sunshine Act,” wrote attorney Melissa Melewsky. “The Act does not distinguish between formal or informal committees or the terminology used to refer to the committee/task force; what matters is whether the committee will be offering advice on agency business, and if so, the Sunshine Act attaches…. The public has a right to witness and participate in the formation of public policy, including its genesis at the committee level.”
BUT THE SUNSHINE ACT has a problem obvious to Indiana County citizens seeking more than p.r. from the local task force and its offshoot.
“Public officials ignore it,” reports the state news-media association, Melewsky’s watchdog employer. “Penalties under the act are insignificant and very rarely imposed.”
Recent local Exhibit A: White Township supervisors’ “numerous” violations during deliberations over logging White’s Woods recreational forest. To “cure” their Sunshine Act violations, the all-Republican township supervisors merely staged a do-over last summer. as allowed by the law.
More recently, Republican county commissioners on Wednesday exhibited dawning awareness of state law requiring open public meetings, no matter what they call them – advisory panels, awareness raisings, fact-finding forums, information gatherings, skull sessions, “leaders who have come together informally to address the pandemic” — whatever.
But as their Covid-19 task force and REACH meetings show, the commissioners have more to learn about open-meetings law. And if the lessons don’t sink in, then the Republican state legislators among the members of both the county Covid-19 task force and its REACH group — Rep. Jim Struzzi and Sen. Joe Pittman — should legislate to close the loopholes in the state open-meetings law and to impose meaningful disincentives for violations.
As attorney Melewsky concluded:
“The county can assign COVID discussions to a committee, but the Sunshine Act applies to the advisory committee, and the public is entitled to witness and participate in committee meetings.”
David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.
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