Smith v. Township of Richmond
Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania
No. 1512 C.D. 2011
July 31, 2012
The Commonwealth Court held that meetings of a quorum of township supervisors can be held in private if they are fact-finding in nature, even if the meetings were designed to allow the supervisors to gather information to make a decision at a later date.
The court suggested that the only meetings that must be open to the public are meetings where official action is taken or a specific proposal or petition is discussed.
Richmond Township was engaged in litigation with a company and citizen’s group over the expansion of a local limestone quarry. In the midst of this litigation, a new supervisor joined the townships’ Board of Supervisors. To bring him and the new solicitor up to speed on the controversy involving the quarry, four informational meetings were arranged, and all three supervisors attended. These meetings took place in private. Two months following these meetings, a settlement was passed by the board.
Prior to the vote, James Smith, a resident of the township, filed a declaratory judgment action challenging the validity of the private meetings on the grounds that they violated the Sunshine Act. He claimed that the meetings involved discussion and deliberation related to official township matters and that they did not fall within any statutory exceptions to the Sunshine Act.
The trial court ruled in favor of the supervisors, and Smith appealed.
Commonwealth Court decision
The Sunshine Act provides that “official actions and deliberations by a quorum of the members of an agency shall take place at a meeting open to the public” unless the meeting falls under an exception.
The court held that the meetings in question did not include deliberations. According to the court, deliberations include only discussions of “a specific proposal or petition.” When an agency is engaged in fact-finding or information gathering, however, the meeting does not need to be open to the public, even if the agency’s members are “collecting information to allow them to make an informed decision at some later time.”
Thus, the court held, public officials may “study, investigate, discuss and argue problems and issues” outside the view of the public.
The court emphasized that Sunshine Act cases are fact-intensive and the plaintiff in such cases bears the burden of proving that the act has been violated.
As the court explained, “[t]he true difficulty is that a violation . . . can be shown only by testimony, under oath, of those in attendance at the meeting alleged to have violated the Sunshine Act.”
Here, depositions were taken of those attending the meetings in question. All testimony was consistent, and no one testified that there were deliberations. As a result, the court found Smith failed to meet his burden of proving deliberations had taken place.