The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

April 18, 2013

Meetings prompt Sunshine Act questions

By Joe Pinchot
Herald Staff Writer

HERMITAGE — Two recent meetings of Hermitage advisory boards that were rescheduled “raise Sunshine Act compliance issues,” said a spokesman for a newspaper industry watchdog group.

City Manager Gary P. Hinkson said there was no intent by city officials to circumvent the Sunshine Act, and called the lack of advertisement of the meetings an oversight.

Hermitage Community and Economic Development Commission was set to meet April 4, but city officials postponed the meeting to April 12.

The Herald’s newsroom was notified of the change of date and The Herald listed the new date in a meetings list and the front page Worth Noting column. The city also posted the change on its website and in the lobby of the city building, Hinkson said.

However, the city did not advertise the change in a paid legal notice.

The Sunshine Act requires agencies to give public notice of the date, time and place – appearing in a newspaper of general circulation - of rescheduled meetings at least 24 hours in advance of the meeting, according to the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.

A news article is not sufficient to meet Sunshine Law requirements.

“We should have put a notice in the legal notice section,” Hinkson said.

The second meeting was by the Hermitage Planning Commission. The board met as scheduled March 11, but an insufficient number of members attended for the commission to take official action.

City officials and board members discussed new dates and tentatively set the following Monday as the date. That date was confirmed in correspondence with members and the media, but the location was changed from the city building to the eCenter@LindenPointe. A legal notice was placed for the meeting change.

Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said it is difficult to determine precisely whether the Sunshine Act was broken by the planning commission.

“(I)f the meeting was properly advertised in January and some of the elected members showed up as planned and then recessed and reconvened until the later date, the March 18 meeting may have been acceptable,” she said. “If an advertised meeting is continued to a later date, the law requires the agency to post the date, time and place of the continued meeting at their main office or at the public building where the meeting will take place. The logic is that anyone interested in attending the meeting would have attended the first advertised meeting and learned of the continuation at that time.”

“The agency should be clear about whether a meeting is being recessed and when in doubt, they should place a  public notice ad,” Melewsky said.

Hinkson said it is city practice to place a legal notice when a meeting has been rescheduled.

“I’ve reminded our people of that,” he said.

“There certainly wasn’t any intent to not have members of the public or the news media aware of it,” Hinkson said. “It was an oversight.”

Hinkson added that he has asked for a legal opinion as to whether the city needs to do anything to preserve the actions taken at the two meetings.