What's wrong with the Sunshine Act

PNA members may use this editorial freely for reprint in their own publications.

From the PNA Legal Department

Here at the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, we are often asked what's wrong with Pennsylvania's open meetings law, also called the Sunshine Act. Why is it that public officials across the state are able to conduct so much public business behind closed doors, and without any repercussions? We talk to hundreds of reporters and editors during the course of a year about closed meetings and "secret" decisions. Last month alone, our Legal Hotline received about 50 telephone calls from reporters with questions about whether agencies were complying with the Sunshine Act.

As a result of these conversations, it has become clear that the main problem with the Sunshine Act is not really the Act itself. The real problem with the Act -- and this probably won't surprise anyone -- is that public officials ignore it. The penalties under the Act are insignificant and very rarely imposed. Worse, the Pennsylvania courts have repeatedly permitted public agencies to ignore the Act's requirements by holding that agencies can "cure" Sunshine Act violations. This means that they can discuss and decide matters in private, in violation of the Act, and as long as they "redo" their vote in public, their decision can stand. But this misses the whole point of the Sunshine Act.

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