Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Sunshine Law & City Council's New Year's Eve Veto Override Attempt

Okay, I think I've solved this.

• There's nothing in the City's Home Rule Charter that bans council from holding a meeting on less than 24 hours notice. You can check the pdf file here.

• There is something in the Rules of Council (incorporated into the City Code) that says the city clerk should give council members (not the public) at least 24 hours written notice of a special meeting.

• That 24 hour notice requirement can be waived by a vote of 6 out of 9 council members.


• A special meeting of City Council called with less than 24 hours public notice would violate Pennsylvania's Sunshine Law.

Here's the quote. The PA Sunshine Law says:

" An agency shall give public notice of each special meeting"..."at least 24 hours in advance of the time of the convening of the meeting specified in the notice".

Section 709 adds that a "Public notice is not required in the case of an emergency meeting" -- but it strictly defines an emergency as:

"A meeting called for the purpose of dealing with a real or potential emergency involving a clear and present danger to life or property. "

So, hypothetically, if Council had mustered the six votes, first to hold the meeting on short notice and then to override Mayor Ravenstahl's New Year's Eve veto, what could have happened?

The Sunshine Law says a legal challenge to the meeting could be filed within 30 days. If a judge ruled the meeting broke the Sunshine Law, he or she would have the option of invalidating any action taken at that special meeting. Note the passage uses the words "may" and "discretion". It's not an automatic loss.

"Should the court determine that the meeting did not meet the requirements of this chapter, it may in its discretion find that any or all official action taken at the meeting shall be invalid. "
(That's in Section 713, titled "Business transacted at unauthorized meeting void". )

What's the punishment the council members involved would have faced? A hundred dollar fine:

Section 714. Penalty
"Any member of any agency who participates in a meeting with the intent and purpose by that member of violating this chapter commits a summary offense and shall, upon conviction, be sentenced to pay a fine not exceeding $100 plus costs of prosecution."

[Update: Chris Potter also fact-checks these topics in a comment here and in his City Paper blog posts .]

A couple of open questions:

1) Are there any previous cases anywhere in which legislative bodies were stymied from taking override votes because of the timing of vetoes?

2) Does anyone see anything in the law or in court rulings that addresses the legality of a veto or an override vote in a case like this? Let me know.

Below are some document links, if you want to check them out.

"The Clerk shall give written notice to the members of any special meeting not less than twenty-four hours previous to such meeting."
See Article V: Legislative, Chapter 151: Council, § 151.01 Regular And Special Meetings, , section (c).

"No rule shall be suspended except by an affirmative vote of two-thirds of the members elected and such vote shall be taken without debate."
See Rule VIII h.

See Sections 709, 713 714.


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