Opinion: Resident, Charter Board stand up for open meetings

OPINION

Reading Eagle

The Issue: Council President Vaughn D. Spencer is censured for excluding the public from a session.

Our Opinion: Should there be another violation, the panel should consider a fine.

Even though the news was not supposed to become public for a couple of weeks, it was nice to hear that the city Charter Board opted to censure City Council President Vaughn D. Spencer for improperly excluding the public from a council meeting last summer.

The Charter Board voted Feb. 8 to take the action, but it wasn't supposed to be made public because Spencer had 30 days to appeal the decision. He shouldn't bother because he clearly was on shaky ground when he called a closed-door session on July 12, during which council members got an update on the progress in the planning of a new sewage-treatment plant.

City resident Ernest H. Schlegel Jr. deserves praise for filing the complaint with the Charter Board about a month after Spencer excluded the public from the meeting. All too often residents willingly give up their rights to an open meeting simply because an elected or appointed official claims the subject to be discussed is too sensitive for a public session.

As we have said many times before, there are only five reasons a public body such as City Council can exclude interested citizens from its sessions:

To discuss personnel matters including hiring, promoting, disciplining or dismissing specific public employees or officers.

To hold information, strategy and negotiation sessions related to collective bargaining or arbitration.

To consider the purchase or lease of real estate.

To consult with an attorney regarding litigation or issues where identifiable complaints have been or are expected to be filed.

To discuss business that would lead to the disclosure of information recognized as confidential or privileged under the law, including investigations of possible violations of the law and quasijudicial deliberations.

Clearly none of those justify Spencer's action. Nevertheless the Charter Board stopped short of imposing a fine. Perhaps Spencer should be given the benefit of the doubt that this violation was a mistake and not a willful disregard for the city charter and the state Sunshine Act.

But the fact is, many elected and appointed officials do ignore the Sunshine Act deliberately, because they know there is virtually nothing that is going to happen to them. The worst is that they will have to conduct another meeting and redo any actions that might have been taken while the public was excluded.

We have argued for years that the Sunshine Act needs to have some teeth to force officials to take care of the public's business in public. There should be a provision to impose fines when a meeting improperly is held behind closed doors. It is up to the Legislature to include such a provision in the Sunshine Act. But the Charter Board already has that option.

Should another complaint be filed against Spencer, who has entered the race for mayor, and should the Charter Board again find that he improperly excluded the public from what should have been a public meeting, we hope it will not limit its action to another censure.

The only way public officials are going to get serious about the right of the people to be included in public meetings is when they have to pay a price for attempting to take that right away.