The recent revelation that Borough Council ordered parking meters to be installed during an executive session may not seem hugely significant on its surface, but what it indicates about how elected representatives do the public’s business is not a matter to be taken lightly.
HONESDALE — The recent revelation that Borough Council ordered parking meters to be installed during an executive session may not seem hugely significant on its surface, but what it indicates about how elected representatives do the public’s business is not a matter to be taken lightly.
In recent months, The Wayne Independent has amassed a stack of evidence that much of the business of running Honesdale’s government is being done behind closed doors, rather than in public meetings where the people affected by the Council’s policies can properly be informed about those policies.
In recent weeks, we have reported on a couple of these issues, including some that could lead to serious legal liability for Council members, such as the Council president’s recent unilateral decision to order all mail coming in to City Hall opened by people other than the intended recipient.
There are also other incidents that indicate a trend toward secrecy in local public affairs, such as the hiring and payment of a consulting firm that was apparently never voted on by Council.
As reported in the Oct. 12 edition, this $8,007 payment to Spotts, Stevens and McCoy (SSM) for zoning ordinance development appears to never have even made it into discussions with the whole Council, as notes written by Councilwoman Barbara Lewis in the margins of the invoice show that she questioned whether the payment was ever approved by Council.
When asked for her comments on whether business is often done outside of open meetings, Lewis said, “I don’t think so. When we state the reason for an executive session, those are the issues discussed.”
Councilman Bob Jennings on the other hand had much to say about business done outside of public meetings.
“I would say it has been done. There have been a number of issues brought up in executive sessions... and there have been decisions made outside of public meetings.”
For example, Jennings said aside from O’Day directing Department of Public Works Director Rich Doney to install parking meters during the Oct. 10 executive session, he recalls several other topics being discussed.
Among these, Jennings said, was the fact that Borthwick brought up the opening of his mail by office staff, something Jennings said he was opposed to. Borthwick has declined to comment on this. In addition to this, Jennings said repairs to Borough vehicles were also discussed in executive session that night.
Aside from public business being done in secret sessions, Jennings confirmed that there have been several occasions during his tenure on Council when he learned of decisions made by the President and Vice President only after the fact, decisions that should have been discussed in open meetings and voted on before they were made.
“I feel I’m too new on the Council,” Jennings said, “To know what has been done in the past. I know these things have happened, but until now I haven’t given it any serious thought.”
When pressed to answer whether she has knowledge of business being done outside of any sort of council meeting, as seems to have been the case with the $8,007 payment to SSM, Lewis said she didn’t feel comfortable answering.
When asked whether Solicitor Richard Henry has ever advised the Council that a subject being discussed in an executive session is inappropriate under the law, Lewis said, “I don’t think I can answer that because it would be a discussion of what goes on in an executive session.”
For his part, Henry said he has never felt the need to reign in an executive session discussion in this way.
He said of the “six or eight” executive sessions he had taken part in over his nearly two years as Solicitor, “Generally speaking, if personnel or litigation has been the reason (for calling an executive session), that is what has been discussed.”
Henry declined to clarify his use of the phrase “generally speaking,” but said neither parking meters or vehicle repairs were discussed Oct. 10.
Subsection 708 of the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act says no business should be conducted in an executive session other than discussions of open investigations, pending litigation, personnel matters and property purchases.
According to Terri Henning, General Counsel of the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, any person has the right to file civil or criminal complaints against a governing body in the county Court of Common Pleas for violations of the open meetings law.
Council members David Borthwick and Nick Slish declined opportunities to comment on this issue, while President Michael O’Day, A.G. Howell and Lee Garing did not return our calls.