A wise journalism professor gave me and my fellow Journalism Law & Ethics classmates two sentences to remember on the day of our final that we took a week before we graduated with Bachelor’s degrees.
- Newspapers are the first draft of history.
- Journalists are the watchdogs of society.
I remembered both and have carried them with me since that day.
So you can see why recent concerns about Curwensville Borough Council members ignoring the state’s Sunshine Law have made headlines in The Progress recently.
The Pennsylvania Sunshine Act requires agencies (like borough councils) to deliberate and take official action on agency business in an open and public meeting. It requires that meetings have prior notice, and that the public can attend, participate, and comment before an agency takes that official action.
Why does the Sunshine Act exist? In simple terms — it keeps your elected officials honest and helps discourage and prevent corruption in our local governments.
The Progress has been reporting on Curwensville Borough municipal government for decades. We have rarely missed a meeting, and most likely, our reporters can provide a better history of that government entity than present council members.
Simply said, we’ve been around the block there for a long time.
A few weeks ago, one of our staff writers attended a regularly scheduled meeting of Curwensville Borough Council and it was noticed that after a lengthy executive session — a closed door meeting of borough council members in which neither the media nor the public are allowed to attend — several items that were on the agenda were suddenly skipped over. When questioned by the media, council President Sarah Curulla said the items were discussed in executive session, therefore they didn’t need to discuss the items again.
That’s a good way to raise some eyebrows. Why were these items discussed behind closed doors? There are very few topics that can be discussed privately among a group of elected officials in an executive session. Some examples that are permitted are matters of personnel, litigation, and union negotiations.
The items skipped over at that meeting did not fit those exemptions.
And that leads to raised eyebrows of not only the media, but the taxpayers. And it asks one question that I would hope all Curwensville Borough taxpayers are asking: What does council have to hide?
Curulla and her fellow council members did not like the story that The Progress published following the meeting. Like all good newspapers should do, The Progress reported this incident to its readers.
At a meeting early this week, Curulla stated her displeasure by reading a Letter to the Editor at the public meeting that she said would be sent to The Progress. In the letter, Curulla demanded a front-page retraction from The Progress.
But even more concerning is that at this same meeting, Councilwoman Harriet Carfley, who is a member of the borough’s finance committee, presented as part of her report a proposed 2019 budget for council to examine. This document was not provided to the media nor to the public in attendance. Figures were not disclosed.
Additionally, when questioned by the media, Carfley said the finance committee had met several times to arrive at the proposed budget.
Those meetings are subject to The Sunshine Law.
Pennsylvania News Media Association’s Law Counsel Melissa Melewsky told The Progress on Wednesday that finance committees acting on behalf of council are among the agencies referred to in the act — and they must hold open advertised meetings unless they are meeting for matters where a closed executive session is allowed.
She said the committee’s purpose is to act on behalf of council and deliberate agency business it will recommend for council’s consideration, requiring its meetings to be open and advertised so that the public is aware of the meetings.
“Finance committees holding open advertised meetings is a very common practice throughout the state. The Sunshine Act law is written clearly and its intent is clear. If you cut the public out of the committee meeting process, then you are cutting out the public from the entire deliberation process,” Melewsky said.
Violators of the Sunshine Law can be subject to both civil and criminal action that is subject to fines up to $1,000, not to mention legal costs to defend themselves or the government they represent.
What council does not understand is that they are not acting in the best interest of the people who elected them to their office. This continued practice of ignoring the Sunshine Act and conducting meetings behind closed doors is not only against the law, it is, for the lack of a better term, shady politics.
The Progress is not interested in causing personal harm to Curulla or any members of council. Our interest is simply to do what newspapers are supposed to do — be the watchdog of society, or in this case, the local government of Curwensville Borough. We are obligated by profession to make sure taxpayers know what their elected officials are doing.
Voters need to take notice, and Curwensville Borough Council needs to become more transparent and do the job they were elected to do — in front of the people who put them there in the first place.