Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Appeals Court: Pa. School Board Wrongly Avoids the Sunshine

Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail, PittsburghImage by Cornell University Library via FlickrA three-judge appellate panel in Pennsylvania has sided with the Trib Total Media, Inc.-owned Valley News Dispatch in finding that the Highlands School District violated the Commonwealth's Sunshine Law when it met in executive session to discuss a tax assessment appeal with shopping center representatives.

Commonwealth Court Judge Patricia A. McCullough wrote that the shopping center reps should not have had a "private audience" with elected officials to lobby the board to support their position concerning the tax issue. The appellate court said the nonpublic meeting did not fall within the open meetings Sunshine Law exemption that preserves private litigation strategy sessions with one's attorney because the shopping center reps were adversaries. The appeals court also rejected the school district claim that a public meeting would discourage the use of alternative dispute resolution.

The case began last June when a Valley News Dispatch reporter was barred from the executive session discussion of the tax assessment litigation, even though counsel for both parties and the shopping center reps were allowed to attend. The trial court rejected the newspaper's claim that the non-public meeting violated the Sunshine Law (Pa. Code Sec. 701 et seq.).

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