Gentle Readers, it’s Sunshine Week!
In honor of PA’s Sunshine Laws, the Mercury has been running editorials throughout the week, including this one at the beginning of the week:
Every deliberation by city council, county commission, the General Assembly or U.S. Congress is the people’s business.
Every penny spent by local, state and federal government is your money.
Every document held in the halls of government belongs to you.
Transparency is not, or at least should not be, partisan.
Access to government meetings and public documents should never be arduous or even controversial.
Government derives all of its powers from the public and is answerable to the public.
It is unfortunate state and federal laws are needed to protect the public’s right to know.
Of course, we know those laws are needed and more often than not must be leveraged by people requesting even the most basic information from elected and appointed officials.
No branch of government should exempt itself from freedom of information laws and no person in government should seek to circumvent those laws.
Accessing government information and attending deliberative meetings should simply be viewed as democracy in action and not as an adversarial relationship between the governing and the governed.
As Regular Readers know, “Sunshine” is surely lacking in Upper Providence.
In fact, If you thought this week’s post would be a celebration of all the openness and transparency you were promised first by Upper Providence First Worst by expanding your Board from three to five members, then again by the election of the “Fresh Perspectives” Democrats, I feel I must temper your expectations.
It’s a rare moment indeed when a politician admits from the dias that they are actively trying to “get around” sunshine laws. But Upper Providence Board Chairman Laurie Higgins has admitted it twice: once last year by confessing that a “no-brainer” decision to close the Rec Center happened outside of public Board meetings and again this week, with an outright admission of “still trying to get around Sunshine Law” at the March 4 meeting this year.
This is beyond just breaking campaign promises; this is just really poor government.
So now that the tone is set, let’s dive in, shall we?
You don’t know the Power of the Dark Side
Because the actual discussion on this topic was so very enlightening, we’ll go through the actual “transcript” of the discussion, as each Board members’ own words are the most effective way to shine a light on their attitutde towards transparency.
Your Humble Blogress makes the first of two appearances at this meeting during the call for public comment:
“It’s come to my attention that this Board has approved an additional 26 meetings over the course of the year. I have not found any agendas for these meetings, I have not found minutes for these meetings; they are not posted online anywhere. This is not transparent government. How do we know what’s being discussed at these meetings? As a member of the public, these meetings are taking place at three o’clock in the afternoon when most people are at work. How do we know what’s being discussed at these meetings? I don’t think its transparent government. It should stop. That’s all I have to say.”
The Board decides not to address these comments at this point in the meeting.
As noted in this post, the Board quietly advertised an additional 36 (not 26, as your Humble Blogress had originally stated) weekly “Board Briefing Meetings” on January 11, 2019.
I say “quietly,” because the establishment of these meetings was never announced at a public meeting, is not posted on the website, and has never been mentioned at any public meeting. The closest the Board came to invoking the existence these meetings was at the 2/4/19 meeting when Calci and Pearson danced around the fact that the Tuesday meeting was where they had been briefed–sans Vagnozzi and Barker– on the UP! Music Festival.
And as I stated from the podium, no agendas have been published for these meetings beforehand and no minutes have been posted afterward.
Now, let’s skip ahead to 51:41 and Supervisors’ Comments where the promised lively and revealing discussion on this topic occurs. Your Humble Blogress makes another appearance at the podium, and as usual, I’ll have some thoughts and analysis at the end of the recap. (YHB Note: Throughout the recap below, the bold, italicized portions of the quotes are emphasized by me. We will revisit them later.)
Let’s pick up where Vagnozzi has “a couple of things” in response to Higgins’ call for comments:
“So Ms. Mossie came up earlier in the meeting and she talked about the meetings that are taking place on Tuesdays at three o’clock. I did the math and I think she said 24 additional meetings. It’s actually 36 additional meetings. My concern with the meetings, and I’ve thought about this for a while, I can’t get to them. I can get to a lot of things in this town, I do quite a bit, as you all know, I just can’t get to those meetings. I haven’t been to one.
The problem with it is, it’s a daytime meeting, it’s not open government because there are few, if any attendees. We don’t have an agenda, we don’t have meeting minutes that are distributed to the public. It’s no different that letting this meeting go to midnight. That’s not open government, having a meeting at midnight, especially if we were broadcasting live or having people in the audience. The Board members are deliberating. Decisions aren’t—my understanding is that there’s no votes, but still, decisions are being made. We’ve seen, and I have examples of that. One example is the Park concert, the gentleman we’ve given $5,000 to for a concert. That was all discussed at a Tuesday meeting, it was never here before the Board. I was clueless as to what was taking place and what the purpose of that concert was and I had to go through an entire—this meeting—to understand it.
My point is, I don’t think we should be having those meetings. It’s not open government, in my eyes. Besides that, we are taking, you as having these meetings, are inundating our manager for time, we are consuming his time, and the assistant manager’s time, and the staff’s time, instead of running the community like they should every day, they’re spending hours appeasing Board members, to attend the meetings, to prepare for the meetings, to report on the meetings, when this is the meeting that we should be having. At any time, if I wanted to call Mr. Tieperman, I could call, I could talk to Bryan about some issues, I could do that, he could communicate with us with pending issues. But to have a public meeting that’s not attended by the public, at a time that is difficult for the public to attend, and adding 36 of those meetings a year, I don’t think that’s open government.”
What follows here is a bit of low-grade panic from the Girls® who have come to rely on these secret Monday morning meetings and quasi-secret Tuesday afternoon meetings instead of doing their homework. Pearson, under whose chairmanship the original Secret Monday Morning Meetings were established, throws the Girls® under the bus and backs away from these meetings so hard he leaves skid marks.
Gentle Readers, I know this is an old hobby-horse of mine, but please understand that the Board is given a full packet of information to digest prior to the Monday meeting. During my tenure, Tieperman also prepared a bi-weekly manager’s report that served to inform the Board on issues concerning the Township that had arisen in between Board meetings. As mentioned above, these extra meetings were established under John Pearson’s chairmanship last year as a handholding exercise to get the Girls® up to speed.
But also, I suspect, more importantly, to influence the way that the Girls® voted; the partisan block voting on Board policy that has happened since the Fresh Perspectives Democrats took over the majority of the Board of Supervisors is not only well-documented on this blog, but it is simply impossible without ex-parte communication amongst a quorum of the Board members. The Girls® have spent their terms thus far demonstrating their complete thumbless grasp of issues facing the Township with their lockstep voting with Pearson on these issues. This kind of government is simply impossible without violating sunshine laws.
Indeed, the conversation that follows reveals an astonishing lack of comprehension on simple Sunshine laws at more than a year into their terms. As has been noted numerous times over the life of this blog, the Upper Providence First Worst folks’ chief talking point in expanding your government was that more people meant more “more sets of eyes” and “more transparency.” In practice, the exact opposite is what has been happening in our township. As we continue through this rather enlightening discussion, it’s important to remember that at the intersection of Fresh Perspectives and Upper Providence First Worst is only one person: John Pearson.
Let’s rejoin the meeting, where Calci, as usual, is struggling to keep up : “Let’s talk about it openly. I’m not opposed. Ever since I’ve been on this Board and got elected, that’s what we’ve been doing.”
Vagnozzi responds, “I know. I never did that.”
Calci, scrambling to explain, cites the secret Monday Morning Meetings and says that Vagnozzi attended “many” of them, which Vagnozzi concedes.
Vagnozzi responds, “The first two years on that I was on the Board, we never had a meeting like that. I was very much engaged. And the reason I attended the meetings is because I wanted to attend those meetings; a lot of things were being talked about so I didn’t want to be out of the loop. But now we’re having a public meeting. We can deliberate. We couldn’t really make decisions at those meetings because they were informal. But now it’s a formal meeting. Now it’s a real meeting, and we’re saying its public but we’re not treating it like its public, because we’re not posting an agenda and we’re not reporting on the minutes.”
Calci: “So let me just ask: Prior to these Tuesday meetings, we had Monday meetings, but there was only ever two [Board members present]. Is that the difference, that now there can be more than two of us and its open to the public that makes this unsettling or any meetings, even with two of us, isn’t a good idea? I just want to be clear as to where the discrepancy is.”
Vagnozzi: “Even the two person meetings, there was deliberation, discussions going on, even if it wasn’t a majority. But it’s not….again, having the meetings like that, what you do is you alienate some supervisors, you’re alienating the public. This [Board Meeting] should be the way to do the discussions. We are debating things here, and we’re learning about things for the first time, and we’re all learning about things for the first time, instead of you two: hey, brief Al, brief John or brief Phil on something if they couldn’t make it. But we’re all here on a Monday night.”
Calci: “And I just want to get to the gist of why we even started [these meetings]. I mean, from the very beginning, that’s what we did.”
Vagnozzi: “No, that’s what you did. It’s not what I did. I’ve been on four years, this is my fourth year. For the first two years, we never did that.”
Calci: “And I wonder too, is it because we went to five [Board members] as a way to kinda get us, to keep us all moving in the right direction? I think that might, you know it’s kinda hard to get five people, it’s like herding cats, so you know like keeping at least two people moving along. I’m just—that’s always what we did, so…it’s interesting to hear your thoughts.”
Township Manager Tim Tieperman then offers his insight: “The purpose of the Monday meetings: We went from a three member to a five member Board of Supervisors, you’ve got three new people [YHB note: There were only two new people. Pearson is serving in his fourth term. Experience counts!]. There was an opportunity to try to just keep you guys briefed on issues without violating sunshine laws. I think Bryan and I came up with a Monday meeting would be a good idea to try to help you along. But then we also were concerned that it would, we didn’t want to run afoul of sunshine. I think Bryan put in an ad advertising these meeting so in case we slipped into deliberation, which I think we try to be very careful not to, so that we’re legal in case we do slip into…we want to be clean, it was intended to be clean in front of the law. There wasn’t certainly any intent to run afoul of, with sunshine. Does that make sense?”
Pearson: “I’ve been to most of these meetings. Never once has there been any deliberation. Umm. I’m not in favor of the meetings. I, I never have been from the very onset of these things, but I, I attended them. Umm, eh, there have been, uh, on most of the occasions that we’ve had these meetings on, on, on a Tuesday afternoons, there have been at least one individual, one citizen there. Umm. Umm, you can ask that gentlemen, umm, whether there was any deliberation going on that day, on, on, any of those, any of those days. Ummm, ah, I have no problem not having these things, it’s, it’s certainly ok with me, uhhhm….”
Tieperman: “If I could add also: it was an attempt to compromise on what, I know my predecessor had regularly what they called ‘3 o’clock afternoon staff meetings’ where I think there was deliberation and there were votes and I think we made an effort in going forward that we would not do that. I think we were trying to find a compromise.”
Barker breaks in: “Excuse me. There were no votes taken at those meetings. They were [once per month] Wednesday morning meetings at 9 o’clock and there were never any votes taken. I can tell you that because I attended and that’s when I stopped attending. I’ve not attended Monday meetings; I’ve attended one Tuesday meeting, ok, but I attended a Tuesday meeting. I did attend one Monday meeting, but I was the only one there. [Tieperman interrupts here and says he was talking about the meeting George Waterman had and Barker continues] I’m talking about those. There was no votes taken there. There was discussion and minutes were kept and they were distributed to the other supervisors.”
Calci pounces: “So there was other meetings throughout this history—Phil just said…”
Barker interrupts again: “They stopped five, six years ago.”
Calci: “Because….? Like they had them and…”
Barker: “Because when Tim came on Board, it was decided that we would stop them, and we didn’t have them anymore [YHB Note: I discontinued those meetings when I became Chairman]. But going back to these, whether they are Monday meetings, whether they are Tuesday meetings, whenever they are, whether there is deliberations going on or not, decisions are being made and giving our staff direction to move forward on different…projects, I’ll say, that the entire Board wasn’t aware of. We know that’s happened because something happened and they were given direction to move in that direction. Because we’re moving backwards now with some of the same things. So I’m fine with just eliminating the meetings and I think maybe Tim’s best served by communicating to us through email that this is what we’re doing, and not soliciting the comments back, as long as that’s acceptable. You know, we’re not going to do a vote over the internet, through Facebook or anything like that. Communicating to us what’s going on so that when we come to a meeting, we have it and we can talk about it. I find it difficult sometimes, on a Friday night, to sit down and digest all this stuff before a Monday night meeting. You know, I don’t know about you, but you try to drive out and look at the subdivisions, see where they are, like Hafner Road, so I understand what we’re talking about in here; I’m not acting blindly. But when I get meeting minutes on a Friday night, I find it difficult to be adequately prepared for a Monday night meeting.”
Calci: “So what’s our suggestion to staff? I wanna be clear about what we are telling them. We want our packet before the Monday night meeting prior to Friday.”
Barker: “I would like it on a Wednesday. It was delivered to my house before on Wednesday.”
And now we get to the part where Pearson throws the Girls® under the bus.
Pearson: “ Well, I, I think the first thing at hand here is, and, and we’re all sitting here right now, and we can do it by a show of hands, or a vote, or however you’d like to, ummm, to discontinue the ehhhh meetings, the Tuesday afternoon, the Monday morning, or whatever other meetings been advertised, as far, a-a-and I’ve already said this, that ummm, I don’t have any problem with not having these meetings, uhh, uhh, as far as I’m concerned, we don’t need, we don’t need the meetings. I’ve said that from day one. And uhhh, you know, you wanna take a show of hands, all those in favor that don’t want to have the meeting, you wanna raise your hand?”
At this, the audience breaks into loud applause.
Higgins: “I’d like to have conversation a little bit farther into what’s going to take the place of them. If you don’t want—“
Pearson interrupts, talking over Higgins, “It’s not going to take the place—“
In one of the most awesome moments of the year thus far, Higgins lifts a finger, shushing Pearson: “Wait, wait, wait. If there’s not going to be even the two people at a Monday morning meeting, or whatever day and time we have it, if you guys don’t even want that, and we’re still trying to get around sunshine law, then, my understanding is that you can’t even send out a group email to everyone on what the issues are coming up. Please clarify to me what the options are.”
Bresnan (still occupying the seat of the sixth supervisor): “It’s fine for Tim to send out an email apprising you of what’s going to be on the agenda or what’s going on. It’s the deliberations among you that can’t happen, even in response to that email. So he’s saying, it’s a one-way directive from someone who’s not one of you.”
Vagnozzi: “If I could. Laurie, you’re the chairperson, right? So you could set a weekly meeting with Tim and go over things, whether you want to or not. So you could have your meeting and Tim could provide an update for us—he used to do the update, he would spend plenty of time doing that, that was a time suck for him, but it was one time. So he could report to us, and we could each speak to Tim, as long as we don’t consume—that’s the problem with being a supervisor. Some supervisors, all of us included, can sometimes make a call and it’s an hour phone call, and that buries them. You know, he’s not gonna say to you, ‘Hey Al, you’re killing me with the phone calls,’ right? But this happens. So we have to be cognizant of the Staff’s time, he can report to us the important issues, as best he can with an email. John, you made of comment about not deliberating. It was a public meeting. So you could’ve. [Pearson visibly bristles at this]. I didn’t say anything, it wasn’t an attack on you, about the Tuesday meetings, you never deliberated, that quorum, so you naturally could talk about things. On the Tuesday meetings.”
Pearson: “We talk about it but no deliberation ever took place. Let me just make this real simple, ok? For all, for everybody that does not wanna have these meetings, raise your hand I-I’m happy to not have this meeting. It’ll make it real simple.”
Higgins: “Let’s do a motion.”
Pearson: “I don’t care how you do it Madame Chairman. It’s like, however you wanna handle it.”
Vagnozzi: “Or you can just discontinue them.”
Tieperman: “One suggestion: Joe, I’m going to ask you to weigh in, I know in some towns that I’ve worked in some of your client towns, the Board members meet, maybe an hour or a little bit before the regular meeting to discuss what’s on the agenda. Sometimes they are considered pre-meeting workshops? I don’t know if that would be an option?”
Bresnan: “They are a possible option. They do invite the possibility of sliding into deliberations. If I’m there for it, I can throw a red flag. But they create at least a possibility of sliding into deliberative conversations, but…”
Tieperman: “Usually, everybody’s here, and if there are any pressing issues, there’s a last minute issue on a waiver, or something, you can bring it up. I’m just trying to think of a compromise where everybody’s informed.”
Higgins: “I just want to say that we try really, really hard not to go into deliberations for these meetings. They’ve also all been advertised. And yes, it’s a difficult time for people who work to get to them, but also Tim tries to give an update to everybody afterwards, as soon as possible, so that everyone knows what’s going on. And we get the packet on Friday, yes it would be better to get it on Wednesday, but you get the packet on Friday and you find out about that information and therefore you can call Tim on Friday, or over the weekend, or Monday, to get more information, so for me, to say you walk into a meeting and you didn’t know anything about it is to me, disingenuous. I see a hand up. Someone would like to come up and make a comment.”
That “someone” is your Humble Blogress, who has been doing her best Arnold Horshak impression from the audience while this conversation veered into the infuriating.
Mossie: “Madame Chairman, with all due respect, it’s not about whether you guys are informed. It’s about whether we, the public, are informed. And that’s what’s not happening. That is what’s not happening here. There are deliberations taking place—and I don’t care what you call them, you can call them ‘talking about something’ or you can call it deliberations. If you’re talking about something, you’re deliberating it. And it’s happening outside of the public eye. If you put an agenda out at the beginning of the week and said, ‘Ok, at our Tuesday meeting we’re going to be talking about X, Y, and Z,’ if it was something that was important to me, maybe I’d want to be there for that. But I don’t know what you guys are going to be talking about. And that’s the problem. It’s not about informing you guys, it’s about informing the public and being transparent and having an open government. And that’s why I came up and said something today. Because I think it’s outrageous that you guys are doing this.”
Higgins calls for other comments.
Calci asks what Tieperman is comfortable with.
Another resident has a question and Higgins asks him to come to the podium.
John Kraft asks the $64,000 question: If the meetings are advertised, why aren’t they posted on the website? “There is nothing on the website that says you are meeting at any time other than first and third Mondays, so that kind of confuses me.”
Calci asks Bresnan where the meetings are advertised, and Bresnan says he doesn’t know, but that the requirement for advertising is not the website, it’s the newspaper, and he doesn’t attend these meetings. It’s Vagnozzi who tell the Board that they were advertised–once–in the Mercury, in a tiny little square in the classified section. As mentioned in a previous blog, to satisfy the bare minimum requirements of sunshine laws, all of the meetings were advertised at once at the beginning of the year. There is no mention on the website because the Board is doing everything possible to not encourage the public to attend.
Tieperman: “Helene, I don’t want to dodge your question. My goal is to make sure you guys are adequately informed. And I think we’ve tried every trick in the book to make sure that everyone gets information equally. I’m willing to explore new ideas and one of the suggestions I had was if we could all congregate maybe before the regular meeting. If there’s any hint—sometimes you have outstanding questions like we did tonight on a particular subdivision that we could try to flesh out. And Laurie, you’re chairman, I think maybe we can meet on a regular basis and between you and me we can get information out. I want to be legal, ethical, transparent, all of the above.”
Higgins asks the Board if they want to do a show of hands or if they want to do a formal motion. Vagnozzi asks Bresnan if the Board has to give notice since they have already been advertised and Bresnan says a sign can just be posted that the meetings have been cancelled. Vagnozzi asks if they even need to make a motion.
Bresnan: “Well, it was done administratively in the first instance, it was never done by a motion, so you don’t need to undo it by a motion.” When Higgins asks if they want to do a show of hands, Bresnan says that, itself, is a motion, and while it’s not necessary, it doesn’t harm anything to be clear about where everybody is on the issue.
Vagnozzi motions to discontinue the meetings and Pearson seconds; it passes unanimously.
Tieperman and Bresnan want to know if the Board wants to address having a pre-meeting workshop back in one of the caucus rooms, and the public could be invited. Tieperman wants to advertise these meetings; Vagnozzi says he thinks they run into the same problem and points out that information gathering on a specific case-by-case basis is very different from another advertised meeting, regardless of where or when it is held and it’s “Not the answer,” in his opinion.
“The dark side clouds everything. Impossible to see the future is.”
Gentle Readers, I’m practically speechless at the ignorance and disregard of the Sunshine Law. I’m not even sure where to start, and most of my opinion can be summed up in my remarks to the Board, above. But there is a little further unpacking that needs to be completed, so let’s just take this apart by examining the quotes I highlighted above in this conversation:
“Ever since I’ve been on this Board and got elected, that’s what we’ve been doing.”
As mentioned previously, these meetings were started in order to get the Girls® up to speed and, I believe, to influence their votes. Calci and Higgins are terribly vexed at the thought of continuing on without this time consuming and completely opaque hand-holding exercise. Why can’t they get the information they need from reading the material that Tieperman sends out on Friday? Apparently Barker and Vagnozzi have no problem simply reading the packet to prepare for the meeting (even if Barker would like some more time), and Pearson couldn’t wait to throw the Girls® under the bus, being the first to raise his hand in favor of discontinuing them, even going so far as to saying that he was never in favor of them to begin with. Never mind, for now, why he allowed them to be established under his Chairmanship in the first place. Calci and Higgins, apparently, are incapable of reading and disseminating this information without having it explained in person to them.
Ironically, Higgins, at the end of the meeting, defiantly engages in her little vanity indulgence with her book club recommendation and then asks the public for their own reading recommendations.
If I may be so bold, Madame Chairman, how about if you read YOUR PACKET?
“…and we’re saying its public but we’re not treating it like its public, because we’re not posting an agenda and we’re not reporting on the minutes.”
This observation by Vagnozzi gets to the heart of the issue: the Board is trying to do the bare minimum to adhere to the letter of the Sunshine law, while completely disregarding the spirit of the law. The multiple attempts and suggestions for alternatives to this do not address this critical issue, which is that while the public is technically invited to these meetings, every effort is made to hide the existence of these meetings from the public, thereby discouraging public participation and blocking public knowledge. Indeed, two of the members of the public, regular Board Meeting attendees, indicated to me that they had no idea that these meetings were taking place.
And the lack of minutes is a really big problem. Your Humble Blogress filed an Right to Know (“RTK”) request on March 5 for the minutes of these meetings, and as of this publishing date, I have not received a response. On March 13, I filed a second RTK, asking for email records of these meetings, as discussions during this evening’s festivities indicate that some record of documenting these meetings must exist. As of this publishing date, I have received no response to this open records request either.
“Is that the difference, that now there can be more than two of us and its open to the public that makes this unsettling”
Why, oh why, are meetings in front of the public “unsettling?”
“And I wonder too, is it because we went to five [Board members] as a way to kinda get us, to keep us all moving in the right direction?”
Again, Calci piggybacks onto one of my favorite hobby horses, which is that transparency and diversity of thought on this Board has only suffered with the addition of “two more sets of eyes.” This state of affairs was entirely predictable. In fact, it was predicted. By me.
“…in case we slipped into deliberation, which I think we try to be very careful not to, so that we’re legal in case we do slip into…we want to be clean, it was intended to be clean in front of the law.”
Oops! We “slipped” into deliberations! As the Board admitted, they did talk about issues at these meetings. They did give direction to staff at these meetings. They did make decisions at these meetings (even if the actiual votes during the real Board meetings were just rubber stamps after the fact). If they are talking about it, they are deliberating it. That’s why simply READING YOUR PACKET is the best way to prepare for a Board meeting; because there is nothing illegal about a one way flow of information to the Board.
Which they would know if they ever bothered to research the law.
“…on most of the occasions that we’ve had these meetings on, on, on a Tuesday afternoons, there have been at least one individual, one citizen there. Umm. Umm, you can ask that gentlemen, umm, whether there was any deliberation going on that day, on, on, any of those, any of those days.”
The problem inherent in having only one citizen attend these meetings—and then basically telling the public they can rely on his word that the Board is not deliberating—is that everybody knows who that one citizen is, including, most importantly, the Board. One citizen has attended meetings in the past, and I have reached out to that person for information on what has gone on at these meetings. He declined to comment for fear of repercussions. It’s a terrible position in which to put a resident. The Board should have just published objective minutes, or else televised these extra meetings.
“…decisions are being made and giving our staff direction to move forward on different…projects, I’ll say, that the entire Board wasn’t aware of. We know that’s happened because something happened and they were given direction to move in that direction.”
Yeah. What Barker said here.
“…what’s going to take the place of them [the meetings]?”
READING YOUR PACKET.
“If there’s not going to be even the two people at a Monday morning meeting, or whatever day and time we have it, if you guys don’t even want that, and we’re still trying to get around sunshine law, then, my understanding is that you can’t even send out a group email to everyone on what the issues are coming up.”
Ok, I was going to set aside Higgins’ glaring ignorance on the Sunshine laws as evidenced by this comment, but I simply cannot let this pass: If she believes Sunshine Laws forbid a group email from the Township manager to the Board, why does she think having Secret Monday Morning Meetings every week in 2018 or these 2019 Board Briefing Meetings are kosher? A one way email is forbidden, but them basically doing Township business outside the public eye is ok? That logic doesn’t even make a little bit of sense.
And let us just reiterate Higgins’ vocalized frustrations on their continuing quest to “get around sunshine laws.”
“We talk about it but no deliberation ever took place.”
If you are talking about it, you are deliberating. We’re not debating the meaning of “is” here.
“…we try really, really hard not to go into deliberations for these meetings.”
“And yes, it’s a difficult time for people who work to get to them, but also Tim tries to give an update to everybody afterwards, as soon as possible, so that everyone knows what’s going on.”
First, we have Higgins’ acknowledgement that the meetings are intentionally difficult for the public to attend because of the time they chose to have them. Then, she completely blows off the lack of transparency by implying that it doesn’t matter if the meeting schedules are inconvenient, because Tieperman keeps all those Board members informed. There is no consideration for informing the public.
“And I think we’ve tried every trick in the book,”
Again, the intent here is clear: it’s getting around Sunshine laws, not complying with them.
“Well, it was done administratively in the first instance, it was never done by a motion,”
This is a revealing comment. Nobody knows about these meetings because, as previously mentioned, they were never voted upon and they were simply quietly advertised in a tiny printed block of the Mercury’s classified section. If you weren’t looking for it, chances are you didn’t see it.
Vagnozzi noted in his remarks that these meetings have the effect of alienating Board members and, perhaps more importantly, members of the public. Anyone who has ever missed a meeting knows that if you miss it, there are things that happen there that no amount of detailed minutes is going to pick up. Even the taped meetings miss some critical bits of information. There simply is no substitute for attendance. Tone of voice, reactions, things that are inconveniently omitted from the official minutes: All of these place non-attendees at a disadvantage. And I’m not just talking about Board members being placed at a disadvantage. I’m talking about the public.
Newspapers are closing or being consolidated at an astounding rate, often leaving behind what researchers label as news deserts — towns and even entire counties that have no consistent local media coverage.
According to an Associated Press analysis of data compiled by the University of North Carolina, more than 1,400 cities in the U.S. have lost a newspaper over the past 15 years. Many of those are in rural and lower-income areas, often with an aging population.
The loss of a reliable local news source has many consequences for the community. One of them is the inability to watchdog the actions of government agencies and elected officials.
Newspapers typically have played the lead role in their communities in holding local officials accountable. That includes filing requests to get public records that shine a light on government action — or inaction — or even filing lawsuits to promote transparency.
“Strong newspapers have been good for democracy, and both educators and informers of a citizenry and its governing officials. They have been problem-solvers,” said Penelope Muse Abernathy, a University of North Carolina professor who studies news industry trends and oversaw the “news desert” report released last fall.
“That is what you are missing when you don’t have someone covering you and bringing transparency or sunlight onto government decisions and giving people a say in how those government decisions are made.”
The absence of a local newspaper playing a watchdog role also can translate into real costs to a community and its taxpayers.
Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Notre Dame found that municipal borrowing costs increase after a newspaper ceases publication. They found the increase had nothing to do with the economy. Rather, the demise of a paper leaves readers in the dark and emboldens elected officials to sign off on higher wages, larger payrolls and ballooning budget deficits, their study found.
“Our evidence suggests that a local government is more likely to engage in wasteful spending when there is no local newspaper to report on that government,” said University of Illinois Chicago’s Dermot Murphy, one of the study’s authors. “Investors find it riskier to lend money to wasteful governments, and thus the costs of financing public infrastructure projects, such as schools, hospitals, and roadways, for a local government are higher.”
“When investigative scrutiny declines, stories go untold, which means waste, fraud, and abuse will be less likely to be discovered,” said Hamilton, director of the Stanford Journalism Program.
“Why are we doing this?”
Regular Readers may recall that the focus of the last meeting was the notorious Pay to Play ordinance. The Board puts this item on the agenda once again, with Bresnan remarking that some of the previously discussed revision have been added. He asks for further comments right around the 42:00 minute mark and Vagnozzi responds:
“Of course we’re all for running our government efficiently and without undue influence from outside people, but this effects three consultants: our attorney, our traffic engineer and our township engineer. I just don’t know if–maybe one of the other Board members can tell me—what is the purpose of this proposed ordinance? I’m just having difficulty because the more we talk about it, the bigger it gets, the deeper it gets, the more convoluted it gets, over three of our professional providers that we’ve had for years who do a great job for us. So I’m just trying to understand. Maybe other Board members can explain why we are pursuing this issue right now.”
Calci, the sponsor of this ordinance, responds:
“You know, it is true, Al. When I first brought the ordinance to the Board and to Joe [Bresnan], it was simple, it was just, that our consultants can’t give any running Supervisor, that’s campaigning, more than $250. It was just to be fair. It was so that it wasn’t so I’m paying you to then play once you get elected. That was really as simple as it was. It is true, it has gotten bigger, deeper and there’s more questions and so, I’m, I’m, I’m seeing that as we go along, as Joe has mentioned it’s been now months because every time it comes back up there’s more questions. So, um…I mean, I don’t know. I’m open to whatever everybody else thinks also. I brought it up just because I thought it would be good to have an ordinance to…so there’s no paying to play.”
Vagnozzi points out that campaign finance laws and election reporting cover most of this. And the law doesn’t do anything to enhance those laws; individuals would still have to obtain those campaign finance reports and suss out those donations to determine wrongdoing. For a thorough dissection of the problems with this ordinance, see HERE.
During the discussion, Vagnozzi also touches on the largest problem surrounding this ordinance: The Board is paying the Solicitor a lot of money to work through the problems with it.
Bresnan weighs in with his concerns, which are centered on the enforcement of penalties. He notes that there are only five of these ordinances in Pennsylvania. There are many in New Jersey, because New Jersey requires municipalities to adopt one of these ordinances in order to receive state funding.
On cue, Calci asks what other municipalities do.
Bresnan says the one instance of a violation, in Allentown, has not gone to trial yet and he’s not sure if any of the other municipalities have ever enforced the ordinance. Bresnan offers to follow up, but now seeing the dollar signs attached to continuing to pursue this down the rabbit hole, Calci defers. Bresnan reminds her that if ever the Board is unhappy with the job performance of a consultant, they can take a vote and fire them; they are not under contract.
Barker notes that the Board has hired and fired consultants in the past and they’ve done it not because of contributions, but because of performance. And Requests for Proposals, or “RFP’s” were issued and several firms were interviewed because the Township wants the best consultants they can get.
The Board basically agrees to table this ordinance indefinitely.
Conclusion: Calci did not propose this ordinance in reaction to a perceived problem in the Township. This was an ideological issue proposed to address a problem that doesn’t exist.
No harm, no foul, except for your wasted tax dollars.
Other Board Business
- The Board approves an ordinance to prohibit parking on a section of Norwood and 2nd Ave.
- The Board approves a repealer ordinance of fireworks
- The Board approved a final plan for a subdivision at Old State and Hafner Roads.
- The Board advertised bids for work on the Lock 60 trail.
- The Board repurposed capital funds to be used to construct the new Fire and EMS building.
- The Board reviewed a policy of replacing mailboxes damaged by Township snow plows
- The Board discussed a veterans’ memorial project proposed by an Eagle Scout.
- The Board discussed conduct rules for the Board
- The following hearings were announced: