The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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March 23, 2014

Recording executive sessions | We fully support legislator's proposal

JOHNSTOWN — A bill winding its way through the state Legislature has caught our eye. The measure is aimed at curbing what one lawmaker considers to be abuses of executive sessions.

State Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Allegheny, has penned a proposal requiring all government bodies – such as school boards, city councils or boards of supervisors – to record what goes on behind closed doors. That way, he said, if questions were asked later about what happened or whether the action should have been held in public, it would be easier to rely on a recording rather than having the participants rely on their memories as to what happened.

Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, agreed, saying that, currently, if a challenge would arise, the general drift of the meeting has to be reconstructed through testimony of those present.

As it now stands, government bodies can adjourn into executive session to talk about only six issues:

-- Personnel matters, such as hirings and firings, promotions or discipline of public officers and employees.

-- Litigation.

-- Labor negotiations and arbitrations.

-- Real estate negotiations, such as purchases or leases.

-- Matters that are legally confidential or privileged.

-- For colleges or universities, academic standings or admissions.

Saccone’s proposal also would add a seventh exemption: Discussion of security issues and emergency preparedness.

We object to government bodies hiding behind closed doors just because they want to avoid the public’s input on hot-button topics. In fact, that is the biggest misunderstanding by governing bodies regarding closed-door sessions.

And executive sessions frequently are abused by the panels that call for them. A governing body may claim it is retreating behind closed doors to discuss a legitimate issue, but then discussion turns to a different topic. Or the governing body may cloud the purpose of discussions under the guise of a generic topic. However, the public has the right to know what the topic of discussion will entail.

We fully support Saccone in his attempt to remove the mask of secrecy from closed-door sessions. It might make honest people of our elected officials, and they may regain a measure of trust in the public’s eye.

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