But these violations pale in the face of what goes on in the land of Nazareth. This is the land where Count, I mean Councilman, Stoudt once canceled a police committee meeting rather than let two reporters inside. Way to go, Stoudt! Most recently, he arrogantly asserted one evening that nothing would ever get done if Council involved the public. As a result, decisions about controversial issues are always made behind closed doors. They have the wisdom of most decisions made in the dark.
Want some examples? There's a civil war cannon in Nazareth circle that probably doesn't mean much to you, but matters a lot to some Nazareth residents. Borough officials wanted to move it out of the circle for reasons that defy logic. Maybe it fires silver bullets. When the public found out, it went ballistic, and exploded as loudly as that cannon ever roared. Council shrunk into the mist.
Same thing with the new government center. Once before, about six years ago, they wanted to build a new government center. Guess where? Yep, the same spot that's under consideration now - a neighborhood park where children play baseball and other games. The cannon roared again and borough officials backed off. But now they're at it again, operating in darkness as usual.
In most municipalities, the Solicitor is usually the voice of reason and will always err on the side of including the public, especially on matters of public interest. But not in the land of Nazareth. Solicitor Al "Renfield" Pierce concludes every thing that committees do is "administrative action," and thus exempt from the Sunshine Act.
I got news for you, Al. You're wrong! "Administrative action" is limited to execution of policies previously decided at an open meeting. That's not what happened when committees got together behind closed doors to decide again to foist a new government center on unsuspecting citizens, and smack dab in the middle of a park. No siree. At least three members of Council were totally in the dark, so those committees could not have been executing policies previously agreed in an open meeting. And these committees actually hired an architect to draw plans for this one and only option. A minority of Council can order architectural drawings? And no other choices? Take it or leave it, baby. That's not "administrative action." That's official action behind closed doors. And the option under consideration will cost around $3 million, enough to suck the blood from every Nazareth resident who operates in the open.
So that's why I hand-delivered the letter below to borough officials Monday. I did it during the hot noonday sun, while they slept. And in the evening, I've got cloves of garlic around my neck and a few crucifixes in my pockets. But now my windows are rattling. Gotta' go. Where's Buffy?
To: All members of Nazareth Borough Council; Hon. Earl Keller, Mayor; and Alfred Pierce, Esq.
Re: Sunshine Act Violations
Date: July 17, 2006
I am a Nazareth resident. At Borough Council's meeting on July 10, 2006, it became quite clear that you have participated in repeated violations of the Sunshine Act for years. This is because you mistakenly believe the Act only applies to meetings at which a quorum of Council is present. As a result, council Committees have been meeting behind closed doors, without public advertising or notice.
As long ago as March 2000, you conducted private committee hearings to decide what to do about a civil war cannon at Nazareth's circle. Most recently, two committees met behind closed doors to decide on a municipal building expansion. Those committees ultimately merged into a single committee that authorized an architect to prepare plans for a new government center at Nazareth Hall Park
As you will all acknowledge, Nazareth Borough Council is an "agency" as that term is defined in the Sunshine Act. But an "agency" is also defined to include committees "authorized by the [Council] to take official action or render advice on matters of agency business ... ." Thus, the committees that met to consider options for a municipal building expansion are subject to the Sunshine Act. Their recommendations and the decision to hire an architect all constitute "official action" as that term is defined by the Sunshine Act.
These committees and their combined single committee violated the Sunshine Act. The Court, in its discretion, could enjoin any further consideration of a borough center at Nazareth Hall Park. The Court could also invalidate the decision to hire an architect to draw plans for a new government center at Nazareth Hall Park.
Your basic misunderstanding is you think you only need to follow the Sunshine Act at your regularly scheduled meetings. But it applies to committees as well, and it certainly applies to a committee considering something as controversial and important as a new government center. Meeting in private to discuss this matter of public interest betrays both distrust and disrespect to the citizens you serve. In fact, Councilman Stoudt had the arrogance to tell one newspaper, "if officials had to alert the public every time a couple of them got together, no business would ever get accomplished." This statement reveals an antipathy both to the letter and spirit of the Sunshine Act. It is a matter of public policy that citizens have the right to attend and be heard at meetings in which official action is considered. The Sunshine Act itself states that "secrecy in public affairs undermines the faith of the public in government and the public's effectiveness in fulfilling its role in a democratic society." In short, democracy dies behind closed doors.
As your Solicitor can inform you, I have 30 days from the date of discovery of a Sunshine Act violation within which to seek a legal remedy. I have no wish to do so, but am extremely disturbed by your systemic exclusion of the people you serve from matters that affect them directly.
To avoid litigation, I am asking that you make the following commitments before August 9:
1. You must agree that ALL future meetings of Council and its committees will be conducted in compliance with the Sunshine Act, i.e. committee hearings will be publicly advertised and open to the public;
2. You must reschedule every Committee hearing at which any official action was taken concerning the new government center, including the decision to hire an architect to prepare plans for a municipal expansion at Nazareth Hall Park, and conduct new hearings with public notice and public participation;
3. You must table any further consideration of a municipal building expansion until the committee has conducted one or more meetings that comply with the Sunshine Act, and that gives the public an opportunity to discuss options in addition to the sacrifice of Nazareth Hall Park.
Thanking you, I am