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Court Right to Know Decision could have broad effect

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A Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, judge may soon have a say in whether citizens have a right to know what decisions are made when their elected officials gather to make them. Currently, some gatherings of elected officials are claiming to be protected from the state's Right to Know Law. A decision either way could affect other agencies, from school boards to economic development corporations.

Last July, a Bloomsburg-based author asked the PA State Association of Township Supervisors for information about its lobbying efforts as the legislature formulated a law to, purportedly, regulate the controversial Marcellus Shale industry. Passed and signed by Gov. Tom Corbett, R-Marcellus, in February, the law established setbacks keeping wells a few hundred feet away from schools and homes, created an impact fee to help mitigate local expenses engendered by well-drillers, and denied municipalities their traditional right to determine where various legal land uses would be sited within the townships' boundaries.

PSATS told author Walter Brasch it would not release the information. Although the organization was established by the legislature to represent the townships, and its members and governing body comprises supervisors -- elected officials, all -- from more than 1,400 townships across the state, PSATS claimed immunity from exposure to solar rays.

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The state's Office of Open Records directed PSATS to release the information, a decision the organization appealed to Cumberland County Court of Common Pleas, where last week the organization argued membership is voluntary and it has no authority to perform governmental functions.

Although the members gather annually to discuss mutual interests and elect a governing body, "Nothing PSATS does binds them in any way to action or inaction," the group's General Counsel Scott Coburn said of policy decisions made by PSATS members.

"What's to stop a group of townships from creating a taxation group to decide how they would tax their residents?" asked Susan Schwartz, state Project Sunshine chairwoman for the Society of Professional Journalists.

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All they would need do is claim the results of their members' discussions were non-binding, and they could remain secret, she suggested.

To which allow me to add, for example:

A few years ago, the Economic Development Corporation in my county helped an unnamed company decide whether to establish a distribution center here. The facility would have included a 1.2 million square foot warehouse and a similarly-sized truck parking area. The complex would have been adjacent to a stream known for local flooding, that flows into, eventually, Chesapeake Bay.

The EDC's job is to bring well-paying year-round jobs to the county. It receives funding from county tax revenues. And the three county commissioners were, and are, voting members of its board of directors, yet they also were sworn to secrecy about the proposal.

The press repeatedly asked about the environmental considerations, and were as repeatedly rebuffed with the statement, "We never said it was Walmart." As one of the questioning journalists, I can attest the questions were never about the name to be painted on the building, but rather about the 27 olympic swimming pools of water one inch of rain would have dumped into the creek.

It is easy to see why a company would want to keep secret its future plans. It's a dog-eat-dog business world out there.

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But elected officials are sworn to be open with their constituents, not to refuse to discuss what plans might be made for environmental risks to the very community the members are sworn to protect.

School boards and other elected panels often hide behind "personnel issues" to avoid talking about issues affecting parents, students and other constituents. Certainly the public does not need to be privy to all the minutiae of a minor disciplinary action that does not involve criminal proceedings.

But when a school superintendent is being terminated, the public deserves more detail than simply to be told the board finally, after months of secret deliberations, has voted to send the superintendent packing with three-quarters of a million in not-yet-earned salary in his pocket.

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John Messeder is a freelance columnist living in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, with his wife and Golden Retriever. Although he focuses primarily on environmental policy, he occasionally writes also about education and other government policy subjects.
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Court Right to Know Decision could have broad effect