Thursday, November 1, 2007

My Requests To The Ethics Board

[The following e-mail was first sent on October 14, 2007. It was my follow-up to the story described in this blog post one day earlier.]

• From: Bob Mayo
Subject: Requests To The Ethics Board
Date: October 14, 2007 6:47:32 PM EDT
To: Sister Patrice Hughes
Cc: Bob Longo, Roberta Peterson, Bob Mayo

Sister Patrice Hughes
Pittsburgh Ethics Hearing Board

Dear Sister Patrice,

I'm writing to you in my role as a journalist who covers city government. This e-mail concerns the Pittsburgh Ethics Hearing Board proposal to hold bi-monthly closed-door "Executive Sessions". Among the board's stated uses of these sessions would be to educate its members about the ethics laws of other cities and how those laws are applied. At Friday's meeting, you noted that Assistant City Solicitor Kate DeSimone had provided board members with a memo which serves as the legal basis for these closed-door meetings.

The city law department refused to provide me with a copy of that memo, which outlines its synopsis of the Sunshine Act, so I did some research on my own.

Here's my understanding of the law.

The Sunshine Act has six specific justifications for holding an "Executive Session" which, by the law's own definition, "is a meeting from which the public is excluded". (Section 703, Definitions; Section 708 a, 1 through 6, Executive Sessions, Purpose.) None of them apply to the educational and informational meetings the board is considering.

The Sunshine Act does provide for a "Conference" meeting of the board, which it says "need not be" open to the public. (Section 707 b, Exceptions, Conference. Section 703, Definitions. ) The wording "need not be" suggests that such a conference _could be_ open to the public. As a journalist who covers your meetings, I formally request that you do open the meetings, and I request that you forward this e-mail to your fellow board members for their consideration.

As you know, Kate DeSimone says that her boss "advised against" releasing the memo in question. Respectfully, since the purpose of the Sunshine Law is "sunshine"--i.e. an open view for the public on the operation of government--I would suggest that the interpretation of how an exemption to the Sunshine Law is being applied should not be confidential.

The assistant city solicitor was acting in an official capacity in advising the board, and members would be adopting an official meeting practice based on that advice. I ask that the board members individually reconsider and provide us with a copy.

I also request that the board adopt the practice required by law: announce at every open meeting--immediately prior or subsequent to an executive session--the specific reasons that the public was excluded.

The Sunshine Act, section 708 b (Executive Sessions, Procedure) states:

"The executive session may be held during an open meeting, at the conclusion of an open meeting, or may be announced for a future time. *The reason for holding the executive session must be announced at the open meeting occurring immediately prior or subsequent to the executive session*. If the executive session is not announced for a future specific time, members of the agency shall be notified 24 hours in advance of the time of the convening of the meeting specifying the date, time, location and purpose of the executive session."

A 2003 publication from the Governor's Center for Local Government Services entitled "Open Meetings/Open Records: The Sunshine Act and the Right to Know Law" notes on page 9:

"The concept of a meeting where members are simply informed and do not discuss issues ignores the basics of group dynamics. Members are all too likely to ask questions, pose possible responses by the municipal government and debate various courses of action. The court decisions cited above do not provide any support to the theory that so-called "informational sessions" are anywhere authorized as closed meetings by the Sunshine Law."

The same publication notes on page 6:

"The reason for holding an executive session must be announced at a public meeting occurring immediately prior or subsequent to the executive session."


"The appellate court stated even though it is in the public interest that certain matters be discussed in private, the public has a right to know what matter is being addressed in private sessions. The reason stated by the agency must be specific, indicating a real, discrete matter that is best addressed in private."

The Governor's Center publication is available online at this link:

Section 703 of the Sunshine Act defines a "Conference" as "any training program or seminar, or any session arranged by State or Federal agencies for local agencies, organized and conducted for the sole purpose of providing information to agency members on matters directly related to their official responsibilities". The same section defines an "Executive Session" as "a meeting from which the public is excluded, although the agency may admit those persons necessary to carry out the purpose of the meeting".

To recap, I am requesting that the ethics board:

-provide a copy of the law department's memo;
-not attempt to use "executive sessions" for its educational briefings on other cities' ethics laws;
-use "conferences" for this purpose and open these conferences to the public;
-adopt the legally-required practice of announcing the specific reasons for each executive session at a public meeting immediately prior or subsequent to the executive session.

I also ask that you please forward this e-mail to your colleagues on the Pittsburgh Ethics Hearing Board.

Finally, here's a link to a post on my blog, in which I discuss my difficulties in getting a specific citation of the law from the law department. There's a link to an online copy of the Sunshine Act at the end of the blog post.

Thanks for your time and attention to these concerns.


Bob Mayo

This next e-mail was sent three days later.

• From: Bob Mayo
Subject: Requests To The Ethics Board
Date: October 17, 2007 4:08:14 PM EDT
To: Sister Patrice Hughes, Kathleen Buechel, Rabbi Daniel Schiff, Rev. John Welch, Penny Zacharias
Cc: Bob Longo, Roberta Peterson, Bob Mayo

Dear Ethics Board Members,

The e-mail below [Blog note: I'm referring here to the October 14th e-mail] was originally sent to Sister Patrice on Sunday. I've since learned that she is out of town for a few weeks, so I'm passing this along directly to you as well. I didn't want too much time to pass before your next meeting without giving you the opportunity to review it.

If it appears that I've used an incorrect e-mail for any of the board members, please let me know.

I look forward to your feedback.


Bob Mayo

That evening, I received this response from an ethics board member.

From: Rabbi Daniel Schiff
Subject: RE: Requests To The Ethics Board
Date: October 17, 2007 9:38:21 PM EDT
To: Bob Mayo, Sister Patrice Hughes, Kathleen Buechel, Rabbi Daniel Schiff, Rev. John Welch, Penny Zacharias
Cc: Bob Longo, Roberta Peterson, Bob Mayo

Dear Bob:

I am sure that I speak for all on the Ethics Hearing Board when I thank you for your keen attention to this matter and for your exhaustive research. I know that we will want to consider your points carefully.

Please be aware that Sister Patrice, our chair, is currently in Israel. Kathy Buechel, our Vice Chair is also out of town for the next week. I believe that Penny may also be travelling.

Consequently, you should not expect any response to your email within the next week to ten days. After that, we will have to deliberate on the questions you have raised, and that might not allow us to respond until after the next meeting.

I just wanted you to be aware of the movements of my colleagues, so that you do not interpret any failure to respond in a timely fashion as a lack of concern about the issues raised. As I indicated - in public - at the last meeting, we certainly desire to maximize public access to the Ethics Hearing Board and its deliberations.


Rabbi Danny Schiff

Earlier this week I spoke by phone with Sister Patrice Hughes, who is now back in town. She notes that the next meeting of the Pittsburgh Ethics Hearing Board is scheduled for Friday, November 9th.


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