By David Loomis
“Initially there was an internet connection and then a disconnect,” wrote township Manager Milton J. Lady in a March 25 email. “We tried for 30 minutes to resolve the problem – reboots, wire checks, etc., and no success. The start of the meeting was delayed approximately 10 minutes hoping we could re-establish the connection. I don’t know if it was an internal or external issue. We have done over 30 teleconference meetings without incident – these things happen – hopefully it won’t happen again in the future.”
Yes, these things do happen, and local civic-minded citizens may be justifiably skeptical about hopes they won’t happen again here.
Citizens concerned about supervisors’ persistent interest in logging White’s Woods, the 245-acre recreational forest owned by White Township, probably haven’t forgotten the supervisors’ serial violations of the spirit and letter of the state’s Sunshine Act. Neither are they likely to have forgotten township board Chairman George E. Lenz’s remark last year that supervisors heard enough from the public in the 2007 controversy over cutting the woods.
So, when Item No. 6 on the supervisors’ advance March 24 agenda advertised “Public Correspondence to Supervisors concerning Whites Woods,” Friends of White’s Woods revved up the nonprofit’s letter-writers and tuned in for the remote supervisors meeting Wednesday evening. When the show did not go on, the group promptly wrote supervisors on March 25 to report recent precedents in McKeesport and Scranton that led courts to conclude the Sunshine Act had been violated in those virtual-meeting cases.
“Recent Pennsylvania court rulings have confirmed that denial of virtual access to meetings as a consequence of technical ‘glitches’ is in violation of the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act,” the group wrote to supervisors.
More prominent was the judge in the Minneapolis murder trial of the cop accused in George Floyd’s May 2020 death. He had the right idea when an Internet outage cut the feed from the courtroom.
“We had a major technical glitch here,” Judge Peter A. Cahill announced as he recessed the trial on Monday.
LEGALLY, White Township supervisors know what to do when they violate the state open-meetings statute: They “cure” it with a do-over, as they did last summer when they were busted for their violation-without-sanction.
Politically, township supervisors would be wise to reconnect with citizens and promptly reschedule Item No. 6 in full public view. And until the loophole in the Sunshine law is locked down, township supervisors should avoid even the appearance of secretiveness to ensure these things aren’t even suspected of happening again in the future.
David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.
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