York County officials booted media from public safety meeting

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch
The York County commissioners approved a five-year contract Wednesday worth more than $2.1 million for maintenance of the county's emergency management systems, including the 911 call center. Friday, July 22, 2016. John A. Pavoncello photo

York County officials barred a reporter from the inaugural meeting Tuesday of the county's Public Safety Advisory Board, maintaining their position that the Sunshine Act didn't apply to the newly formed panel.

The meeting was held at the county's Emergency Services center at 120 Davies Drive in Springettsbury Township, which has a secure entry way. 

All three county commissioners sit on the PSAB as well as representatives from several county departments and local police and fire agencies.

"Our solicitor has advised us that these meetings aren’t open to the public," said York County Commissioner Julie Wheeler when speaking to The York Dispatch outside the meeting.

The Sunshine Act is the state law governing public access to open meetings at which public bodies deliberate agency business. It's typically triggered when a quorum of a government board meets to deliberate or vote on policy. 

Two legal experts, one from the state Office of Open Records, have said that the PSAB qualifies as an agency under the Sunshine Act based on its advisory role to the York County Board of Commissioners.

"This is exactly the kind of thing that the Sunshine Act is intended to cover, so that its meetings are open to the public," said Erik Arneson of the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, a state agency that advises on public access laws.

Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said the Sunshine Act covers committees that render advice to the larger body in question — in this case the board of commissioners — on matters of policy. 

Later Tuesday, county solicitor Michèlle Pokrifka responded to a request for more details regarding her determination that the PSAB was exempt from the Sunshine Act. 

"Despite your assertions that the PSAB meeting should be a public meeting, we disagree and I have advised the Commissioners as such," she stated in an email.

Pokrifka also cited case law, specifically Ristau v. Casey, a 1994 decision by the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court.

In that case, the court ruled that a trial court nominating commission created by then-Gov. Robert P. Casey was not an "agency" as defined by the Sunshine Act because there was no legal requirement to have a nominating commission nor any law governing such a commission.

The trial court nominating commission existed only to make a recommendation to the governor about who to nominate to fill a vacancy created by the resignation of a common pleas judge in the state's 37th Judicial District and did not exercise any governmental authority, the court stated in its opinion.

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