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|Pottstown board members question 'secret' meetings, Mercury 3-4-10|
POTTSTOWN — When School Board member Thomas Hylton unveiled a proposal Monday to reorganize the district's schools, he did not deny that he had discussed it with the two other members of the Neighborhood Schools Committee that he chairs.
That discussion, school board member Michele Pargeon told him, was a violation of the state's Open Meetings Law, often referred to as the Sunshine Law.
Hylton disagreed,"I'm pretty familiar with the Sunshine Law."
Pargeon is correct, at least according to Melissa Melewsky, who is an attorney with the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association and an expert in state Open Records Law and the Open Meetings Law.
"Any committee of an agency, if it votes and advises the school board, is an agency in and of itself and it must conform to the Sunshine Act," Melewsky said.
Given that the committee has three members — Hylton, Nat White and Valerie Harris — even two members discussing "agency business" would be a violation of the Open Meetings Law, she said.
"I mean, ultimately, that's up to a judge, but I would say yes it is" (a violation), she said.
During Monday's meeting, former school board President Judyth Zahora, who is now the school board's treasurer, also questioned the process by which the proposal was made public.
"This is a very detailed proposal, but I do not recall it being discussed publicly before," said Zahora. "When was the committee discussion?"
"The discussion starts now," Hylton replied.
"I didn't run to get on the school board to then start thinking about this," said Hylton, who said he has been thinking about various aspects of his proposal for many years.
(The plan is available online at www.pottstownschools.com)
"I think it can be worthwhile working with two board members or three board members to have a discussion," he said at the meeting Monday, arguing it is not a violation of the Sunshine Law because "a quorum of the school board is five people."
He added, "I find it salubrious and efficient for board members to have discussions. Nobody's voted on anything."
"If this is the first time it ever came up in public, then it seems to me there are lots of meetings going on behind closed doors," said Zahora, who reminded Hylton that he ran for office on a platform of open government.
Board member Robert Hartman Jr. criticized what he described as a non-public process.
"I came tonight to see if my worst fears would be realized, that a complete plan that had never been discussed in public would be presented, and it was," Hartman said before leaving the meeting in apparent frustration.
Perhaps those fears were fueled by several e-mails he received last fall from school board President Rick Huss that he provided to The Mercury. In the first, on Oct. 20, Huss invited Hartman, Harris, Hylton, White and school board Vice President Dennis Wausnock to a "kick-off meeting" at his house on Nov. 20.
"We will be discussing future plans, committees, looking at how to streamline the workforce at the admin building and other concerns we might act on in the NEAR future," Huss wrote in the e-mail. "We need to know each other, talk and feel out how (each) one is thinking. This year I would like to get something done and not let a few hold us back with counter votes, we MUST work together," Huss wrote.
In a subsequent e-mail on Nov. 4, addressed to the same five people, Huss wrote, "It was a long wait until November finally arrived and the happy people of Pottstown went to their voting polls to vote for their favorite people they wish to seat on the Pottstown School Board for the next four years! They [people of Pottstown] decided to unseat Judy for the second time in six years and pick Polly for the next four years hoping for better results than what Judy decided most recently," Huss wrote.
He also wrote, "Tom has told me that he thinks it is too early to have this meeting. I disagree. We have three weeks to get ready for the reorganization meeting and I would like to be ready for the meeting on Dec. 3."
Hartman also provided a brief Nov. 13 e-mail from Hylton to Huss and copied to the same group saying, "I have talked to Val and Dennis and Nat and we are all agreeable to meet on Sunday as you have proposed. I presume you have talked to Bob."
Responding to an e-mail from The Mercury, Huss wrote Wednesday: "First of all, at the time of the meeting on Nov. 15, Tom Hylton and Valerie Harris had not been seated on the board yet, so there was no violation of the Sunshine Law. The purpose of the meeting was just a "meet and greet" session. If Bob Hartman had attended the meeting, he would know what took place, instead of making unfounded assumptions.
"Secondly, if as much time and effort were expended in trying to find common ground to work together for the good of the School District, much more could be accomplished," Huss wrote.
Hartman, in response to earlier e-mailed questions from The Mercury, wrote that he did not attend the meeting at Huss' home.
"The reason for this is that based on the content of the e-mail, the meeting was not regarding the approaching election and working the polls or on just who was interested in being an officer of the board, it was stating that they were going to decide on how to run the administration, cutbacks, etc. which are things that should be discussed by the entire elected board in a public setting," Hartman wrote.
"As seen in the e-mails: (school board members) Julia (Wilson), Polly (Weand) and Michele (Pargeon) were not included in the e-mail. Even if dealing with personnel, this would be done in executive session, but by the entire board and then approved as a public meeting," wrote Hartman.
"I felt that even though some people were not elected when the initial e-mail was sent, there was still a trust the public had placed in them by placing them on the ballot via the primary election," he wrote. "Also, once the election occurred on 11-3-09, even though they were not sworn in, the public had voted for people and trusted they would not be having meetings in secret."
Which is how Melewsky views it. She confirmed that because Hylton and Harris were not yet sworn in on Nov. 15, a meeting like the one described did not violate the letter of the Open Meetings Law.
Even if Hartman had attended, there would only have been four sitting board members there and a quorum of the school board is five members, she said.
Hylton and Harris "are not agency members until they are sworn in," Melewsky said, "so it's not a violation of the law, but it does conflict with the intent of the law."
In fact, Melewsky said she has received numerous calls in recent months about "people who were elected but not yet sworn in to office getting together with elected officials and talking about agency business.
"It's not illegal, but it certainly speaks to a violation of the voters' trust about how you are obligated to behave under the Sunshine Act," Melewsky said. "There's no reason why these discussions can't occur in the public."
"I might have made a mistake in not bringing these things to light previously, but I did not want it to look like I was upset at not being elected as board president and just trying to cause problems," Hartman wrote The Mercury.
"Therefore I gave these people the benefit of the doubt, but since then I have seen supposed committee suggestions being brought to the board without any 'committee meeting' discussion taking place prior to the suggestion from the committee coming to the board," he wrote.
"This just seems like more back door type of meetings which I am hoping by bringing this into the light at this time will keep it from occurring in the future."