Written by Eric Wise
The finance committee of the Steelton-Highspire School Board met privately on Monday, Nov. 24, and a reporter from the Press And Journal who attempted to attend the meeting was turned away.
Committee meetings are to be open to the public under Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act, according to a media law expert.
“School board committees that render advice or take official action on matters of agency business (like finances) are considered agencies themselves and are subject to the Sunshine Act,” said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel with the Pennsylvania News Media Association. “Many school districts (and other agencies) acknowledge this fact and hold public committee meetings.”
The Sunshine Act is a state law that requires government agencies to hold public meetings in which any member of the public may attend.
Any person may attend the meetings of the state Senate’s Games and Fisheries Committee, for example, or committees of school boards or the Dauphin County Board of Commissioners.
If someone is found guilty of violating the Sunshine Act, he or she may face fines up to $1,000 plus court costs, although few cases reach that point. In many cases, when a local agency violates the Sunshine Act, those who object to its illegal meetings are satisfied when the agency begins holding public meetings in compliance with the law.
Members of the Steelton-Highspire committee, led by board President Mary Carricato, appeared alarmed that a member of the public would attend the committee meeting. “This meeting is where we brainstorm,” Carricato said. “It’s not open to the public.”
Carricato said that the public could not be present considering “the stuff we are discussing.” She did not explain what board members would be discussing at the closed meeting.
Superintendent Ellen Castagneto disputed the Press And Journal’s assertion that committee meetings are public. Castagneto said the only “committee” meetings that are public are workshop meetings that the school board calls “committee meetings.” She insisted that “subcommittees” never hold public meetings.
The finance committee’s meeting was mentioned at a recent school board meeting. It was not listed on the school district Web site, and no public notice advertisement could be found online.
The Sunshine Act requires that agencies advertise their meetings in publications of general circulation so that members of the public are aware of the meetings and may attend to learn how tax money is spent.
Melewsky said committees must follow “the provisions requiring public notice and public meetings anytime a quorum of the committee deliberates agency business.”
Finances “are among the most public of topics because they are deciding how to spend tax dollars paid by residents and taxpayers,” Melewsky said. “The people who paid taxes and are affected by its distribution have the right to witness and participate in agency discussions about the topic,” she said.
Any time a quorum of a board or a committee is present and discusses issues related to the agency, the law considers this to be a “meeting,” regardless of whether members refer to it as a “work session” or some other name, Melewsky said.
“The Act applies to deliberation as well as official action meetings,” she said. “The Act does not limit public attendance and participation to the final vote-taking meeting. The public has the right to witness and participate in the formation of policy, including its genesis.”
The Sunshine Act allows for keeping the public out of certain meetings with special exceptions. Members of an agency are permitted to attend conferences in which the state government or another group provides educational instruction about their role as elected or appointed officials, so long as nothing specific to the members’ own board, council or committee’s business is discussed.
Closed sessions are also allowed for what the act calls “executive sessions.” Agencies are permitted secret meetings to discuss buying or selling real estate, negotiating a union contract, certain personnel matters (when a specific person’s employment is being discussed), and meeting with a lawyer to discuss an issue relating to a specific pending or active lawsuit.
While the Steelton-Highspire school board announced an executive session prior to its Nov. 10 board meeting, no one mentioned any special exception in regard to the finance committee meeting to be held on Nov. 24.
Carricato and Castagneto did not respond to requests for further comment.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 02 December 2014 20:42
Written by Dan Miller
Note to Middletown residents who thought a tax or electric rate hike for 2015 was off the table: Think again.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 02 December 2014 20:37
Written by Eric Wise
Parents knew police responded to something at one of the Steelton-Highspire School District’s two schools on Oct. 23, thanks to social media postings and text messages.
With the district mum on the incident, parents’ worries grew as they waited for their children and word from the school.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 25 November 2014 20:22
Written by Dan Miller
Last week it was a bird, this week it may have been a squirrel.
In any event, Middletown residents early this morning experienced the second power outage within nine days.
Borough Communications Director Chris Courogen said the outage occurred at about 6:40 a.m. today.
He did not immediately provide details concerning where the power loss occurred. However, a person in the borough office earlier today said the outage appeared to be concentrated in the areas of East Emaus, Race and Rupp streets.
Judging by posts to the Press and Journal Facebook page, the outage also impacted portions of East Main and Adelia streets, a portion of the 600 block of Vine Street; and parts of East Water, Spruce, and Maple streets.
The outage lasted close to an hour and a half, as power was restored by 8 a.m., according to the Facebook posts.
Courogen said he couldn't say for certain, but suspected that a wayward squirrel may have been the culprit. Public Works Director Ken Klinepeter could not be reached.
On Tuesday July 15 borough residents and businesses lost electricity for about 90 minutes. That outage was blamed on a bird that got into the electrical equipment and led to a number of fuses being tripped.
While Middletown isn't the only place where the electricity goes out on occasion, Courogen said it does seem to be happening with more regularity of late - and that critters like birds and squirrels are a major reason why.
"I suspect that the (Middletown Borough Council) Public Works Committee will start looking" at what can be done to solve the problem, Courogen said.
Last Updated on Thursday, 24 July 2014 17:08
Written by Dan Miller
Middletown residents will have the chance to see – and possibly meet – the two remaining finalists to become the borough's next police chief on Monday, July 21.
Middletown Borough Council's public safety committee will interview one of the two finalists behind closed doors at 4 p.m. in council chambers at the borough hall. The closed-door session will last about 30 minutes, after which the committee will present the candidate to the public and ask the candidate several questions in open session.
Then, starting at 5 p.m., the committee will repeat this same process for the other finalist.
If you cannot be at either the 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. session, your best shot to meet either or both of the two candidates could be at about 6 p.m.
By then, the committee expects to be done with its part of the process, said Councilor Scott Sites, public safety committee chairman. So from about 6 p.m. on, the candidates will be free to meet and mingle with residents, and answer their questions – if the candidates choose to do so.
Borough residents already have the scoop on one of the three finalists, John Bey of Susquehanna Twp. Bey could not make Monday's session, so the committee interviewed Bey and presented him to the public on Tuesday, July 15.
Bey took full opportunity of the chance to meet with borough residents in council chambers after the committee was done with him.
As for the other two finalists, who will be interviewed on Monday: One is from this area, while the other is from the Midwest.
The full council will meet during its monthly committee-of-the-whole session at 7 p.m. on Monday. However, council will not act on the top cop job at that meeting, Sites said.
The target date for council to choose the next chief is Monday, Aug. 4, Sites said.
Last Updated on Friday, 18 July 2014 19:46