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Sunday, January 6, 2019

Charleroi councilman alleges members violated Sunshine Act | Local News - Uniontown Herald Standard

One member of Charleroi council believes his fellow council members may be running afoul of the state’s Sunshine Act, alleging they were engaging in discussions that included borough business in group text messages.

In a letter he read at council’s recent work session, Councilman Larry Celaschi said his “frustration level has reached an all-time high” because council members are violating the act that requires government business be conducted publicly.

“This council has demonstrated time and time again that it’s not bothered (by) conducting borough business illegally,” he said. “Whether it is violating the borough code or violating the Sunshine Law, this council continues to conduct borough business in a manner that is not appropriate.”

But Council President Jerry Jericho, with whom Celaschi has often had differences, said there were no violations.

“If we send out text messages, they are strictly informational,” Jericho said Thursday.

Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said elected officials can violate the Sunshine Act by communicating via group emails or text messages. It’s what being discussed that decides if that has occurred, she said.

“If there is a quorum (of council members) discussing agency business, the Sunshine Act applies regardless of whether that discussion takes place in person or via electronic communication technology,” she said. “It is also worth noting that there is no ‘informational’ exemption to the Sunshine Act, and every quorum discussion of agency business must be evaluated on its own merits.”

Jericho said the borough’s secretary frequently sends group emails to council members, and questioned why group text messages would not be permitted.

Melewsky said group communication – via text or email – is “inconsistent with the letter and intent of the Sunshine Act.”

“It encourages discussion of agency business outside a public meeting,” Melewsky said, “which is obviously not in the public interest.”

On Friday, borough solicitor Steve Toprani said he’s received copies of the text messages from Celaschi. However, Toprani said, because they were incomplete conversations and out of order, he had difficulty determining the complete context of what was being discussed. He said he plans to get a complete copy of the text message transcripts so he can review them, and determine if there were any violations of the Sunshine Act in the group discussions.

While Toprani said that it’s understandable that council members may want to share borough-related information with each other in a timely manner, he agreed that it is important that discussions should be held in a public forum, as the Sunshine Act requires. Toprani added that modern technology has changed the way people do business and that it’s important to educate government officials about the rules for communicating with each other.

Jericho noted Friday that four new council members joined the board last year, and are still learning the nuances of what is allowed. He stood behind his belief that council members had good intentions for communicating with each other and did nothing inappropriate.



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