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PG sues over closed meetings

City oversight board, recovery team meet in private

Saturday, March 06, 2004

By Timothy McNulty, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette yesterday asked Commonwealth Court to order the city's fiscal oversight board and its Act 47 recovery team to hold their meetings in public.

The newspaper filed a lawsuit against the two panels and asked for an injunction forcing them to adhere to the state's open meetings law, called the Sunshine Act.

The suit alleges the board and the recovery team -- which are working simultaneously to solve the city's fiscal crisis -- have violated the law by conducting most of their deliberations behind closed doors.

Both the oversight board, which Gov. Ed Rendell signed into law Feb. 12, and the Act 47 distressed city statute of 1987 are subject to the Sunshine Act, the suit said. That law requires that actions and deliberations by government bodies be held in public, with exceptions for talks on privileged matters of personnel, real estate and lawsuits.

The oversight board -- officially called the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority -- has until April 12 to issue to the Legislature short-term recommendations for fixing the city budget, which faces a $40 million shortfall this year. Over the next seven years, the board will force the mayor and City Council to adhere to five-year balanced budget plans.

Since all five board members were finally announced Feb. 19, the group has had three meetings. One meeting was held partially in public -- with the majority of the session behind closed doors -- and two others were entirely in private.

At the last meeting Wednesday, in the Downtown law offices of Reed Smith, the full board met in private with members of the city's Act 47 team. The team of Downtown law firm Eckert, Seamans and Public Financial Management of Philadelphia also is writing recovery plans for the city's budget and has already been issuing cost-cutting recommendations.

The board's attorney, Reed Smith lawyer Glenn Mahone, refused to let a Post-Gazette reporter attend the Wednesday session, giving three reasons: the Act 47 team is not covered by the Sunshine Act; the Sunshine Act allows for private meetings as long as they are "working sessions" that take no official action; and personnel matters were being discussed, regarding the board's search for an executive director.

After the 21/2 hour session, oversight board member Jim Roddey told the Post-Gazette that the Act 47 coordinators "gave us a briefing on work they're doing, they brought us up to date on where they are, and we asked them a lot of questions and they gave us a lot of answers. . . . It was a very productive meeting and certainly there was a real message of cooperation between the two groups."

The Post-Gazette lawsuit, filed by attorney Charles Kelly of Canonsburg, said those quotes from Roddey and similar remarks by board chairman James L. Smith III showed the board was deliberating on important, official business behind closed doors, violating the law.

The suit also states that the Act 47 team is covered by the Sunshine Act, contrary to Mahone's claims, and that clearly more than personnel issues were being weighed in private. The suit did not address Mahone's other claim that the meeting was a "working session," allowing it to be private.

In a brief, Kelly asked Commonwealth Court to rule that both the oversight board and the Act 47 team are covered by the Sunshine Act and to force all future meetings to follow that law.

Due to the closed meetings, Kelly wrote, "The public has been and will continue to be harmed by being denied the opportunity to observe the decision-making process being undertaken by two agencies whose recommendations are vital to the city, its employees, its residents, and the residents in surrounding communities ...

"Because the authority and the coordinator are statutorily required to provide recommendations to the city of Pittsburgh within a short window of time (60 days and 90 days respectively) the harm that the public is suffering by being denied access to their deliberations is indisputably immediate. Any harm to the authority and the coordinator in being required to have their meetings in public is outweighed by the public's interest in this information."

Neither Mahone nor Smith could be reached for comment.

In an interview, Post-Gazette Managing Editor Madelyn Ross said, "Our position is clearly laid out in the suit. We think it is inarguable that the oversight and Act 47 teams fall under the Sunshine Law, and that law has been violated."

Kelly said the newspaper asked for an expedited hearing on the lawsuit and requested injunction.


Tim McNulty can be reached at tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.

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