York County backpedals, opens election confab

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
Temporary county workers Derek Kennell and Doris Feeser sort and store items returned from polling sites at the Elections and Voters Office at the York County Administration Building Thursday, November 7, 2019. The final vote tally was released earlier that morning after glitches with the new voting procedure on Tuesday delayed the count. Bill Kalina photo

York County doubled back on Friday and opened to the public a commissioners' meeting about the troublesome recent election, which officials earlier had said would be a closed-door affair. 

The reversal came roughly four hours after The York Dispatch reported the confab could violate the state's Sunshine Act.

County spokesman Mark Walters on Friday evening confirmed the now-public meeting would take place at 10 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 14, in the county Board of Commissioners chambers. 

"We had questions for Dominion (Voting Systems) and relayed them over a conference call, which occurred today," Walters said. "We've invited them to a public debriefing next week to explain the processes and let us know how they intend to go about fixing the issues that we experienced."

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County commissioners, state legislators and poll workers are expected to be present at the meeting.

After officials announced what was once anticipated to be a private meeting during a York County Elections Board meeting on Friday morning, Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said such a private meeting would raise red flags because of the state's Sunshine Act. 

The presence of more than one member of the three-member county board would constitute a quorum and trigger the state's open meeting law.

York County Commissioner Chris Reilly said earlier Friday it was his understanding that all three commissioners would attend the meeting. Commissioner Doug Hoke said he planned on attending and that the questions about a potential Sunshine Act violation were legitimate. 

President Commissioner Susan Byrnes, who organized the meeting, did not respond to multiple inquiries for comment on Friday.

The Sunshine Act states that "any prearranged gathering of an agency which is attended or participated in by a quorum of the members of an agency held for the purpose of deliberating agency business or taking official action" is required to be a public meeting. 

A deliberation is defined as "the discussion of agency business held for the purpose of making a decision."

Earlier in the day, Walters stressed there "won't be any deliberating or decision-making," even though York County Solicitor Michèlle Pokrifka said officials would discuss election policy.

A tweet Friday, Nov. 11, 2019, from York County spokesman Mark Walters defending the county's decision to hold a closed-door meeting, which might have violated state open meeting law. The county reversed its decision and opened the meeting to the public hours later.

Walters, later via Twitter and text messages, doubled down.

"Under the Sunshine Act it is not a meeting," Walters wrote on Twitter. "This is happening to gather information and is not held for the purpose of deliberating or taking official action."

State law provides for seven exemptions that would permit closed-door sessions, known as executive sessions, mostly in cases of individual personnel matters or for strategy sessions about litigation.

As a general rule, courts have ruled, public boards should assume meetings are open unless explicitly exempted under state law. 

At Friday's meeting, Nikki Suchanic, director of the county's Department of Elections and Voter Registration, announced she will resign on Jan. 3 because of personal issues after highlighting a variety of issues with Tuesday's municipal election.

The elections process earlier this week quickly took a turn for the worse, and final results were not tallied until Thursday. As of Sunday afternoon, the results had still not been fully updated on the county's website.

Election results were delayed because of a shortage of ballot-counting scanners and technical glitches. The problems included long lines, incorrect paper ballot sizes and many voters not knowing how to use the new machines, officials have said.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.