Bucks County Herald

Gerry Monigan: New Hope Notebook

Borough council faulted for following protocol

An attempt to err on the side of caution backfired on borough officials last week, thanks to the wording of a public notice.

The issue gets messy, but stick with it:

In the midst of the investigation into the recent thwarted scam targeting borough money and possibly involving borough employees, the borough council needed to conduct an executive session, which, by law, can be held in private.

According to the website of the state Office of Open Records, “An agency may discuss certain matters in Executive Session, which is not held in public. Some reasons an agency may hold an Executive Session include discussing personnel matters … and consulting with an attorney about active or pending litigation.”

Barring an emergency, an executive session must be held in conjunction with an advertised meeting, and, according to the website of the state Office of Open Records, “The specific reason for an Executive Session must be announced in the public meeting either before or directly after the Executive Session.”

The question is what constitutes an emergency.

Although borough and county officials have consistently declined to comment, it is not only possible but likely that one or more borough employees or officials have been subpoenaed and are on leave from their duties in connection with the scam investigation. That certainly could constitute an emergency.

So the council could have simply called an executive session. But to avoid any inference that it was trying to hide something, it took the extra step, on the advice of borough Solicitor T.J. Walsh, of advertising a special meeting and convening it for the sole purpose of adjourning into executive session.

But there was a foul-up: The advertisement's wording gave the wrong impression. It read:

“Notice is hereby given that the New Hope Borough Council will hold a special meeting on Thursday, May 11, 2017, beginning at 1 p.m., in the Borough Administration Building at 123 New Street, New Hope, PA to discuss personnel matters.”

If the notice had said “executive session” instead of “special meeting,” there would have been no confusion. And if the intent had been to hold a meeting with public input, it would have been held in the Community Room, where all of the borough's public meetings are held, not in the administration building.

Regardless, the notice was published in the Bucks County Intelligencer, and so on May 11, Intelligencer reporter Christopher Ullery showed up at the administration building to attend what he expected to be a public meeting to address scam-related issues. Instead, the “special meeting” had been convened and adjourned, and the the council had begun its executive session.

The next morning, the Intel headline read: “New Hope meetings morph into executive sessions without public.” The story below it criticized the New Hope council.

The twist is ironic, in that the council, on Walsh's advice, was trying to be thorough.

“I'm a belt and suspenders kind of guy,” Walsh said Tuesday. “Rather than try to argue with someone what an emergency is … if you're going to have an executive session, you advertise the convening of a meeting, and in that public notice, you say the purpose of the meeting is to adjourn immediately and go into executive session.

“That way, no one can say 'They met without public notice.' That not only covers you on the public meeting side, but it also tells anyone who may want to attend that this is not a meeting where you're going to be able to comment, because they [the council] are going to go into executive session. That's the purpose of the notice.”

The notice, however, was unintentionally misleading. And because the council had done the same with an April 27 executive session, the Intelligencer, according to its May 12 story, had “filed a formal objection to the second session.”

The story did not say with whom or exactly when the “formal objection” had been filed.

Regardless, on May 11, Ullery showed up in New Hope to press the issue.

As council president Alison Kingsley recalled, “We had already called the meeting to order, and it was specifically called to adjourn to an executive session. I didn't even know there was a reporter out there. The next thing you know, this guy's out there giving JoAnn (Connell, borough administrator) a hard time.”

Kingsley said she went to speak to the reporter and explained the situation.

“I told him we do what our attorney says to do. We advertised it as a special meeting being called for the purpose of adjourning to executive session to discuss personnel. And that's what we did. It was strictly to call an executive session. That's it.”

Ullery's story cited the opinion of Melissa Melewsky, counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, which said, in part, “the law does not require executive sessions to be advertised.”

However, the state Sunshine Act states, “The specific reason for an Executive Session must be announced in the public meeting either before or directly after the Executive Session,” and, “For a special or rescheduled public meeting, agencies must provide at least twenty-four hours advance notice, with the notice bring printed in a newspaper of general circulation and posted at the location where the meeting is to take place.”

New Hope was trying to follow the letter and the spirit of the law. Which is why Kingsley was angry with Ullery's approach.

“The guy, in my opinion, was totally out of line,” Kingsley said Tuesday. “He was rude. He was not barred from any public meeting. Had I known there was a reporter who supposedly wanted to be in the meeting when it was called to order, I would have said, 'Fine. We call the meeting to order; now we adjourn to executive session. Thank you and see ya.' ”

Now, the focus can return to the nature of the scam.

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