News

Protect Yourself from Violating the Sunshine Act

access_time Posted on: February 3rd, 2016

Lancaster County Was in the Crosshairs

Article by: Margaret “Mieke” Driscoll

Attorney Mieke Driscoll

We at CGA have been following an important and interesting story in which the DA launched an investigation in Lancaster County in response to a Sunshine Act Violation. While no findings were made by the DA at this time and no charges will be brought, it is important to understand what this board did wrong in the eyes of the press and the DA (and what avoided prosecution at this time). 

The allegation: A Lancaster newspaper reporter alleged that the Manheim Township School Board violated the Sunshine Act by failing to disclose with enough specificity the purpose of their executive sessions because they stated only that the sessions were for “Personnel”.

The DA’s conclusion: The Board’s one word explanations, which has been their custom in all of recent memory, were not sufficient under the Sunshine Act.  Because the DA also found that the violation was not intentional (the board sincerely thought that they were complying) it concluded its investigation without pursuing any charges, but made it very clear that it would be watching the Board and may investigate if the behavior continued unchanged. Click here to read a letter that was sent to the Board from the Lancaster DA.

What does it mean for you:  Don’t panic if your elected body consistently uses one word (“Personnel”, “Litigation” or “Legal Matters”) as the reason for your executive sessions. You are in excellent company as this is the custom of an overwhelming majority of municipalities, authorities and school boards alike. You may, however, want to amend your behavior by being more specific in the future.  How specific?  It is not clear.  The Manheim case does not shed much light on that for us, other than to tell us that a one word explanation is not enough. On the other hand, revealing the name of the employee that you are discussing, for example, is clearly more than what is required.   

Four things to keep in mind:

  1.  Be sure that the topic of your executive sessions are appropriate under the Sunshine Act.
  2. Always announce executive sessions, regardless of when they have occurred (before, during or after a regular meeting).
  3. Begin with the date and time of the executive session if is not occurring during that public meeting.
  4. Be specific in your explanation for the purpose. Some suggested language that may be specific enough includes:
    • “To discuss a personnel matter involving the investigation of an undisclosed employee”
    • “To discuss the contract of an unnamed employee”
    • “To discuss a personnel matter involving the investigation of an undisclosed employee”
    • “To discuss the contract of an unnamed employee”
    • “To discuss the status of ongoing litigation in the matter of the Township v. Mr. Smith”
    • “To discuss threatened litigation related to a land development issue”
    • “To discuss the collective bargaining agreement of the support staff”
    • “To discuss the status of a grievance filed by the education association”
    • We are always available to provide more guidance before, during or after your public meetings.

We are always available to provide more guidance before, during or after your public meetings.