There are very few things which really get my blood boiling as a journalist. One which does are executive sessions.


 


There are very few things which really get my blood boiling as a journalist. One which does are executive sessions.

Elected officials and executive sessions seem to go together like bacon and eggs. In so many cases, there is abuse of the law under the guise of executive sessions and elected officials, along with their attorneys, know it is taking place.

I have seen this throughout my career, but it appears to be more severe here than in other places I’ve been. Part of the problem is the weakness of the open meetings laws in Pennsylvania. Oh sure, the laws are in place, but the penalties are a slap on the wrist so violations continue to happen.

And it doesn’t always involve executive sessions. Take Texas Township, for instance. They have been in violation of the law for close to two months in not providing public documents which we have requested.

It appears they would rather be in violation of the law than to comply and let the taxpayers know the truth.

This is a glaring example of how elected officials skirt the law all in the name of privacy.

The laws are very clear when it comes to what can be discussed behind closed doors. Yet we all know many other issues are being discussed in private. The previous Honesdale Borough council even proved that point when they admitted discussing non-personnel matters in closed session.

The question then becomes: What is this new council discussing behind closed doors? This is the council who pledged openness and very few executive sessions. Yet at almost each meeting, the doors go shut and discussions take place.

What elected officials — and especially their paid attorneys — fail to understand is how easy it is to get off track and begin discussing issues which are in no way, shape or form related to personnel. In some ways, they need to police themselves but that rarely seems to happen.

And for the attorneys, there are just no excuses. They know the law and they know the boundaries but it just seems that doesn’t matter and they allow boards to discuss matters which are completely off base and not related to personnel matters.

You may ask: Why does this matter?

The answers are so far ranging it would be impossible to list them all.

One of the major reasons is you are paying the taxes which allow for these things to take place. It’s your money which is allowing elected leaders to violate the law with the blessing of their attorneys.

Another obvious reason is elected officials put their names out there and become part of the public discussion. That means they answer to the public, not themselves. Any hint of an open meetings violation should be brought up by those who are in the meeting. Even if they have to point out to the attorney there is a problem, that is what they are elected to do — not sit back and take the attorney’s word for what is taking place.

Let’s take a hypothetical when it comes to Honesdale Borough.

We all know there have been many questions raised when it comes to how records were kept at the borough and what the next steps should be when it comes to deciphering those records. That is a given.
Any discussions related to those records must be discussed in public. There’s no hiding behind litigation or personnel. We’re talking about zoning and building records. There’s nothing sacred about these records. They are issued to the public and paid for by members of the public. It’s that simple. That means there is no way an closed-door discussions can take place about the record keeping and what should happen next.

Members of the borough council should know this to be the case and, hypothetically, should stop any discussions should they ever take place.
Remember, this is a “what if” scenario.

The “what ifs” could go on and on and on when it comes to the borough, Texas Township or any other government entity in this area. One of the difficulties is there are so many government bodies between the townships, schools, boroughs and a plethora of others, it’s impossible to keep up with all of them, especially for this newspaper.

That’s where citizens have to be diligent. Citizens do attend these meetings and they must always question the elected officials about what is being discussed behind closed doors. This would especially seem true at meetings of smaller townships or organizations.
In some cases, it’s simply a matter of people not understanding the letter of the law. This can be understandable as there is a lot to take in and it takes some self-education on the part of those who are elected.

In other cases, however, they know well the meaning of the law and what is and is not legal. School boards would seem a good example of this as some members sit on the board for years and years.

Yet in all of the cases, it’s also true they are given every opportunity to attend training sessions and seminars directly related to the limited amount of business which can be discussed behind the cloak of secrecy. Every elected official has no excuse but to make sure they are educated and then use that education to ensure the public’s business is getting done in public.

These are extremely important matters and they need to be addressed by each and every elected official. Maybe even more importantly, the attorneys themselves need to educate themselves, and their boards, to make sure the business of the public is being conducted in the open. Nothing else will suffice.

Little is editor of The Wayne Independent and can be reached at editor@wayneindependent.com.