When the Harrisburg School Board recently voted to rescind a controversial decision on its superintendent, it didn’t just take residents by surprise.
It also may have violated state laws that govern public meetings, according to one attorney and public access expert.
Last week, the board voted 5-4 to rescind its March decision to open a search for a new district superintendent. The action was added to the April agenda and immediately went to vote following a motion by board director Tyrell Spradley.
The vote took place without an opportunity for public comment, which raises serious questions about the board’s compliance with the state Sunshine Act, said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel at the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.
Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act governs the proceedings for public meetings of any government body. Among other requirements, it states that all public agencies must provide an opportunity for residents and taxpayers to comment on an issue before a decision takes place.
“There’s really no exception to that rule,” Melewsky said. “The public was not given the opportunity to participate in the process, and that right is guaranteed. That creates a significant Sunshine Act issue.”
The board did hold its requisite public comment sessions at the beginning and end of the meeting. But the motion to rescind was raised and passed just after the start of the meeting, before the floor opened to public comment on agenda items.
As a result, audience members did not have the chance to comment on the rescission before it went to vote.
According to Melewsky, the board should have called for public comment before taking any action on Spradley’s proposal.
“All they had to do was say, ‘Here is a proposed action, we will accept comments,’ and then proceed with the vote,” Melewsky said. “Whether they get comments or not, that opportunity for the public has to exist.”
Board Solicitor Samuel Cooper did not respond to requests for comment on this story, but board President Judd Pittman said that his colleagues moved the motion before any public comment could take place.
“Everyone was caught off guard,” Pittman said.
The board’s possible non-compliance does not invalidate its vote. But Melewsky explained that the board could uphold its obligation to the public by holding the vote again, this time after hearing comments.
Elected officials don’t typically change votes based on public comment, she said, but courts have ruled that they deserve the chance to do so.
Stuart Knade, senior director of legal services at the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said that it’s up to board members to hold themselves accountable for Sunshine Act compliance.
PSBA offers training for new board directors that includes a two-hour orientation on legal matters, Knade said. However, he estimated that only one-third of board members across the state take advantage of them.
Knade added that solicitors can help board directors police their Sunshine compliance.
At the end of the day, though, it’s a citizen-enforced law, according to Melewsky. Any citizen attending a public meeting has the right to raise an objection at any time to a perceived Sunshine Act violation.
“There is no state agency that polices compliance,” she said. “It’s up to the public to make officials follow the rules.”
This article was edited to make clear that members of the public did not have the chance to comment on the rescission before it went to a vote.