Some of the worst cases of government wrongdoing occur when elected officials are able to hide what they're doing until it's too late for public scrutiny.
They slither into secret meetings to plot what they want to do — perhaps selling out taxpayers with something that will cripple future finances by accommodating special interests who are generous with "political campaign contributions."
Then they slip an arcane entry into an agenda and vote to approve it with little public discussion before anybody realizes its sinister impact, which usually comes after the politicians have skedaddled to greener pastures.
I did not agree with everything Gov. Dick Thornburgh did in office, but I think he had the most integrity of any governor since the late 1960s, which is when I moved to Pennsylvania.
In 1986, he signed the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act into law, requiring that meetings be public, with specified exceptions, such as the legitimate need for elected officials to meet in private to consult their lawyers or to discuss the discipline of agency employees.
The Sunshine Act, updated in 1998, says "official action and deliberations by a quorum of the members of an agency shall take place at a meeting open to the public," unless those specified exceptions apply.
A key item in that passage is "deliberations," and the law defines that word as "the discussion of agency business held for the purpose of making a decision." In other words, it is (or was) illegal for any governing body to cook up plans behind closed doors and then spring them on the public with a sham voting session in a public meeting.
On Friday, The Morning Call had a headline that said, "Court: Private info sessions OK." The story under that headline said the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the elected board of supervisors of Richmond Township, southwest of Kutztown in Berks County.
I'm not saying any of the aformentioned skulduggery applies to Richmond, and nobody seemed especially upset over the action the three supervisors took in a March 8, 2010, public meeting — to approve a settlement in a dispute over plans to expand a limestone quarry — but there was a challenge to the way they did it.
A quorum of the supervisors (all three, to be exact) previously held four closed meetings with special interests, and then voted 2-1 to approve a settlement submitted by quarry operators just 45 minutes before the start of the public meeting.
The settlement itself may be righteous, but the way it was implemented stinks to high heaven and a lawyer who lives in the township, James M. Smith, took action against it in court.
A county court ruled in favor of the secret meetings and Smith appealed that to Commonwealth Court, which did likewise. The Supremes upheld the lower courts in a ruling sure to be celebrated by every unscrupulous politician in Pennsylvania.
"We know agencies are relying on this decision as another reason for cutting the public out of the loop," the story quoted Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, as saying. (News media people are always pushing for governmental affairs to be conducted in the open, where journalists can functions as watchdogs.)
I read the Supremes' ruling and it's filled with jargon aimed at showing how the closed meetings were technically legal. But on page 15 the justices were forced to admit that "there is one portion of the deposition transcripts that gives us pause."
The ruling says Smith was right when he said that in a sworn deposition, one township supervisor "affirmed that the board held the gatherings … so that they could later make a more educated decision." Also, two supervisors admitted the data given them at the closed meetings "was the only information they ultimately relied upon in deciding how to cast their vote."
In other words, the quarry settlement was a done deal in the closed meetings, precisely the sort of official behavior the Sunshine Act was designed to prevent.
"Nevertheless," the ruling says, "this exchange appears to have been de minimus within the context of the meeting as a whole." ("De minimus" is legal talk for something that's just a trifle.)
So it seems that from now on, this ruling will let any quorum of elected officials meet behind closed doors if those officials claim their illegal actions were just trifles. Who will be able to prove otherwise if no member of the public can observe what went on?
I also talked to Smith to get his side of the story.
"If we can't see what's going on [in a closed meeting]," I asked him, "how are we supposed to know what was de minimus?"
"Exactly!" Smith blurted.
With this ruling, I asked, what will be left of the Sunshine Act?
"There's nothing left," he said. "This eviscerates the act. … You're absolutely right on. There's nothing" that elected officials will be unable to do behind closed doors.
From now on, it seems, when rascals in government want to bamboozle and swindle the public, they'll be able to find a way to meet behind closed doors, out of public view, to concoct their "de minimus" schemes and then implement them before members of the public know what hit them.
Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.