Could someone turn up the sound? The SRC and the Open Meeting Law
by Len Rieser on Apr 17 2009 Posted in Education law corner
Eric Braxton’s blog about the lack of public discussion, among SRC members at this week's meeting, of something that's a huge deal for Philadelphia families – the five-year “strategic plan” -- is on target. How could three of four SRC members have had so little to say on something so important?
Eric suggests that perhaps the commissioners “asked their questions in private, not wanting to create public tension with the administration” – to which he responds that “public discussion on matters like the future of public education in our city is a good thing.” True -- and it's the law, too.
Pennsylvania’s Open Meeting Law, found within the state's poetically-named Sunshine Act, says that “[o]fficial action and deliberations by a quorum of the members of an agency shall take place at a meeting open to the public.” “Deliberation” means “the discussion of agency business held for the purpose of making a decision.” Therefore, if SRC members discuss agency business for the purpose of making a decision, they must do so in public.
This suggests a couple of possible explanations for what didn't happen this week:
- The members of the SRC hadn’t yet discussed the plan, and weren’t ready to do so on Wednesday. Nothing legally wrong there, though it’s a little hard to understand, given the amount of information about the plan that the District has been distributing for the past several months. (To be sure, the final version was not available until shortly before the meeting.) Or,
- The commissioners had discussed the plan, but in private, “not wanting to create public tension” or for some other reason. Let's assume that this didn't happen, because it would have violated the Open Meeting Law, at least If the discussion was part of the commissioners' decision-making process (e.g., if they were trying to figure out what the plan meant, or whether it would work, or whether we can afford it).
So what can we expect at next week’s “action” meeting? If the Commission’s public “deliberations” are minimal, but the plan is approved, there will again be a couple of possible explanations:
- The commissioners didn’t discuss the plan in private during the time between meetings, and they chose not to discuss it much in public either. Horrible way to arrive at a decision on something so important.
- The commisioners had most of their “real” discussion in private, and saved only a little for the public. Violation of the Open Meeting Law.
Fortunately, these are only possibilities. Let’s hope that neither occurs, and that, on April 22, we see a fresh, unscripted, robust exchange of thoughts and concerns about Imagine 2014.
Because, even though one speaker at this week’s meeting said (undoubtedly with the best of intentions) that “we frankly need to get out of the way” of the Administration, that’s not correct – especially as applied to the SRC, which is the Administration’s boss. The SRC does not need to get out of the way. It needs to take the time, and have the public discussion, necessary to ensure that (and help the rest of us understand why) this plan makes sense, is doable, and will work.