Pennsylvania's Sunshine Act is fairly straightforward: With few exceptions, a governing board must deliberate and vote in public, with interested parties given the chance to comment.
That's the bedrock of open government -- that decisions made in the name of constituents are reached not behind closed doors but "in the light of day."
It's how people know what their elected officials are up to, and it allows them to weigh in if they choose.
Yet we still hear of too many cases where boards, councils and commissions -- either out of ignorance or convenience -- skirt the law.
A Dover Township supervisor claims that's what happened on his board recently.
Matthew Menges has sued his fellow supervisors and the township for allegedly violating the state's Sunshine Act with the purchase of 7,500 recycling containers.
In his complaint, Menges said township manager Laurel Wilson sent an email to each member of the five-person board after she learned the township was awarded a grant to buy containers from Penn Waste. Wilson said in her email that she was "operating under the assumption" the board wanted her to sign a contract and move forward with the purchase.
Supervisors Monica Love, Madelyn Shermeyer and Michael Husson responded to the email and said to move forward, but Menges and supervisor Chuck Richards said the issue should be taken to vote at a public meeting.
Later that day, Wilson signed the contract for the purchase, according to the suit.
Menges said he asked the board to start the process of approving the purchase again, in an attempt to comply with the Sunshine Act, but received a letter from township solicitor Charles Rausch, "saying it was not a violation and they weren't going to do anything."
In the letter, which Menges provided to The York Dispatch, Rausch said the ratification of the signed contract was on the board agenda for the May 29 meeting. It was at that time subject to debate and public comment.
"Therefore, even if the board's emails were deemed to be a 'vote' in violation of the Sunshine Act, the subsequent vote to ratify the contract would have cured any violation."
According to Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel with the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, courts have said there's "no harm, no foul" if an offending board redoes actions at a public meeting, called a "cure," as Rausch said the Dover board did.
But what if the public had objected at that May 29 meeting, and at least one supervisor had changed his or her mind? How would the board have "cured" that, given a contract had already been signed -- without the public's knowledge?
A judge might have to decide if the Dover Township board violated the Sunshine Act, Melewsky said.
It seems a simpler course of action would have been to follow the law, especially after Menges pointed out the potential violation before a contract was signed.
"While I was running for office, people said they feel they have no voice in the township," Menges told the Dispatch. "For me, this is really just a matter of, 'This isn't right. This isn't the way we're supposed to operate.' ..."
While the board might now be in compliance with the Sunshine Act, some Dover Township officials certainly violated the spirit of the law.
And we're glad someone is shining a light on it.