PRIVATE FACT-FINDING SESSIONS PERMITTED UNDER SUNSHINE ACT:
Supreme Court Ruling in Smith v. Township of Richmond
On December 16, 2013, in Smith v. Township of Richmond, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court confirmed that prior to decision making, school board directors and other elected officials may hold private information gathering sessions without running afoul of Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act, 65 Pa. C.S.A. §§ 701-706.
The legal issue in Smith v. Township of Richmond involved whether township supervisors could meet privately with neighboring local officials, members of a citizens’ group and representatives of a local cement company regarding litigation over the expansion of a quarry. The purpose of the private meeting was to ask questions and obtain information regarding the potential impact of the quarry. The township supervisors subsequently approved at a public meeting a settlement agreement with the cement company, and a local resident sued the township arguing that the earlier private fact-finding sessions violated the Sunshine Act.
The Berks County Court of Common Pleas and the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court both concluded that the township supervisors did not violate the Sunshine Act. Both of those courts held that township supervisors’ closed-door gatherings did not constitute prohibited “deliberations” under the Sunshine Act and, therefore, were allowed to be held in private. The Supreme Court accepted the appeal to decide whether the Sunshine Act’s definition of the term “deliberations” allowed such private gatherings.
The Supreme Court initially observed that a “meeting” occurs, and must be open to the public under the Sunshine Act, whenever a quorum of the governing body of the agency convenes to deliberate agency business. The law defines “deliberation” as a discussion of agency business “for the purpose of making a decision.” The Supreme Court explained that such decision-making discussion implies either a debate or discourse directed toward the exercise of judgment to decide between multiple options. The Supreme Court ultimately concluded that the fact-gathering sessions did not constitute “deliberations” under the Sunshine Act because the purpose was information gathering:
“Gatherings held solely for the purpose of collecting information or educating agency members about an issue do not fit this description, notwithstanding that the information may later assist the members in taking official action on the issue. To conclude that such information-gathering discussions are held for the purpose of making a decision would amount to a strained interpretation not reflective of legislative intent.”The Supreme Court declined to adopt a bright-line rule to determine when private fact-gathering sessions might cross over into deliberations, and noted any determination whether sessions should take place in public settings will depend upon the facts in a particular case. The Supreme Court also cautioned that while public officials may view closed-door fact-gathering sessions as beneficial, the public may likely view them with skepticism as conversations could quickly transform from information gathering into deliberations.
The Smith decision is a noteworthy decision because it clarifies that school board members may meet privately to obtain information in certain circumstances – so long as they refrain from deliberating or making decisions on school district business – without violating the Sunshine Act.
Confusion had surrounded the scope of the term “deliberations” under the Sunshine Act for a number of years. Although the Sunshine Act defines “deliberations” as, “[t]he discussion of agency business held for the purpose of making a decision,” some Pennsylvania courts have previously recognized that not all discussion constitutes deliberation. In Conners v. West Greene School District, 569 A.2d 978, 983 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1989), the Commonwealth Court noted:
“There is a substantial difference between discussion and deliberation. A school board member is not foreclosed by the Act from discussing and debating informally with others including school boardmembers the pros and cons of particular proposals and matters that may be on the board’s agenda. The [Sunshine] Act does not prohibit a member from inquiring, questioning and learning about . . . school issues only at a public meeting.”
Similarly, the Commonwealth Court even noted in Belle Vernon Area Concerned Citizens v. Bd. of Comm’rs of Rostraver Twp., 487 A.2d 490, 494 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1989), that public officials have an affirmative duty to “study, investigate, discuss and argue problems and issues” outside the confines of public meetings, if such actions are required to be fully informed about the issues on which the public official is expected to vote.
The Smith decision affirms the correctness of those decisions that authorized elected officials to meet privately for non-deliberative, non-decision-making information sessions.
If you have questions regarding the Smith decision, or wish to discuss Sunshine Act compliance issues, please feel free to contact us.
We hope you find this issue of KKAL’s Education Law Watch helpful and informative. Please understand that the Law Watch is designed to provide information about current developments and required actions. It does not constitute legal advice, and school districts should consult a lawyer knowledgeable in this area of the law prior to taking specific actions on the issues addressed.
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