EDITORIAL: Agendas and minutes a must

The Dispatch Editorial Board
State Rep. Aaron Bernstine

State Rep. Aaron Bernstine is ahead of his time. And his legislation is desperately needed in York County, where too many local officials regularly display contempt for citizens' right to know.

That's because Ellwood City Republican has authored right-minded legislation that would amend the state's Sunshine Act to require local governments and school districts — at least those with official websites — to post an itemized agenda at least 24 hours prior to a public meeting. Any changes to the agenda made after that period would only be allowed in the event of an emergency.

It is a necessary move toward keeping the public informed about how their tax dollars are spent and an incremental step toward engaging a populace that has lost faith in its core institutions. It's a logical acknowledgement that the internet must play a vital role in the distribution of public information, a realization that is apparently beyond lawmakers in statehouses throughout much of the country. 

Bernstine's bill, which passed the state House unanimously this past week and sits in the Senate, couldn't come sooner for York County taxpayers, who, almost weekly, look on as their elected class display a deep-seated desire to avoid any semblance of transparency. 

The Senate should immediately, and unanimously, ratify Bernstine's legislation and send it to Gov. Tom Wolf for his signature.  

A survey by The York Dispatch this past week found that the vast majority of local governments fail to regularly publish minutes and agendas to their websites. Several have broken links. Others are backlogged for months.

It's an affront to the very people footing the bill. 

Just this past week, The York Dispatch reported on the York County Industrial Authority's penchant for violating open meeting law. YCIDA members have for months convened behind closed doors to discuss a property sale, that's clearly supposed to be debated in public under the state's Sunshine Act.

It was the second time in the past year YCIDA has been caught violating state law in a cynical effort to keep the pesky taxpaying public out of the loop. 

When pressed, the organization's attorney cited unpublished legal briefs and flippantly inserted his own words into state law in an effort to defend YCIDA's activities.

Apparently, authority officials believe they're empowered to unilaterally rewrite state law. 

But the issue extends far beyond the YCIDA.

York County's government, too, is far from a pantheon of access and accountability. Take, for example, county commissioners' unwillingness to even answer questions about a controversy of their own design.

The recent flair up over the hiring of election director Steven Ulrich festered for days. And, all the while, commissioners — elected officials supposedly answerable to the public — ducked questions and refused to address the fracas.

And that came after county officials' failed attempt late last year to convene an illegal closed-door meeting to discuss the mess that was November's municipal election.

Legislation such as Bernstine's would not fix all the assaults on transparency that have become common place at every level of government.

But it would stand as a common-sense fix to the open meeting law, versions of which have become increasingly outdated throughout the country as state legislatures refuse to address the internet's panoptic place in modern life.

Citizens should have a full view of what public bodies are debating. They should know when public officials plan to vote on topics large and small. And government officials should embrace an informed public's role as the ultimate barrier against corruption and malfeasance. 

Unfortunately, throughout York County, too many public officials would rather govern on the down-low.