This agency is reviewing the controversial Hay Group salary study, which applies to its 350 nonunion employees, but I thought they were meeting later in the day, when it would be easier for county workers to attend. Silly me. I decided to go up myself and saw the three member commission huddled with human resources workers and Assistant County Solicitor Jill Mancini. I was politely asked to leave, and was told the public meeting would start later in the day.
At 2:30 PM, the time I was given, I walked in again. Sarah Cassi followed closely behind, and smoldered as the Personnel Commission spent a good ten minutes talking with Human Resources boss Connie Sutton Falk about different steps in the Hay Study salary scale. When the "public" meeting finally got underway, the only county worker there, aside from human resources staff, was Human Services Director Ross Marcus.
I had two questions. First, why did the Personnel Commission (which consists of Marna Hayden, Joyce Lang and Deborah Patterson) violate Pennsylvania's Sunshine Act? Second, why were they meeting in the middle of the day, when county workers affected by their decisions were working and unable to attend?
Sunshine Act Violation
Assistant County Solicitor Mancini said she really isn't sure the Personnel Commission is an "agency" as that term is defined in the Act. Well, let's see. That term includes "any board, council, authority or commission of ... any political subdivision of the Commonwealth." Unless Northampton County has seceded from Pennsylvania, it's pretty clear that the Personnel Commission, whose members are appointed by the Executive and confirmed by county council, is an "agency."
I suggested to Mancini that since she is unsure, why not err in favor of the public's right to know? Instead, she said something about erring "on the side of caution."
Mancini also claimed that the closed meeting was for "administrative action," defined as the "execution of policies relating to persons or things as previously authorized or required by official action of the agency adopted at an open meeting of the agency. The term does not, however, include the deliberation of agency business."
There are two problems with her argument. First, the Personnel Commission never authorized any such meeting. Second, as Sarah Cassi pointed out when she got going, the Commission was conducting "agency business" behind closed doors. They had pre-decided Marna Hayden's appointment as chair. Moreover, they were deliberating aspects of the Hay Study, right under my very big schnozz, before the public meeting ever got under way.
According to the very language of the Sunshine Act, "[S]ecrecy in public affairs undermines the faith of the public in government and the public's effectiveness in fulfilling its role in a democratic society." That's precisely what happened yesterday. How can county workers or taxpayers trust a body that excludes them?
Yesterday's 2:30 PM meeting time was certainly convenient to Human Resources staffers and Personnel Commission members, but made it impossible for most county workers, as well as the public, to attend. In fact, I can find no evidence the meeting was even advertised, a Sunshine Act requirement.
As the meeting went on, County Exec John Stoffa dropped by, as well as Solicitor Karl Longenbach. But those most dramatically impacted by the Hay Study were doing their jobs. After the meeting, I spoke to Sheriff Jeff Hawbecker and Controller Steve Barron, both of whom had spoken eloquently at the Personnel Commission's inaugural meeting. Jeff was in Reading and Steve was unaware of the meeting. Human Resources Director Connie Sutton Falk claimed everyone could have attended, but did they know about the meeting? She ended up restating the positions of county workers. They really should be permitted to speak for themselves.
Commission Chair Marna Hayden explained they had no control over the meeting time yesterday, but will ensure that future meetings are scheduled at times when both workforce and public can attend.
Stoffa Addresses Commission
Northampton County Exec John Stoffa, unaware that the Commission had met behind closed doors, gave them a little advice. "Have all your meetings open," he said, noting that secrecy just "causes suspicion among the employees."
The Hay Study recommends that 22 workers be "red-circled," i.e. denied additional raises or cost of living adjustments. Controller Steve Barron previously told the Commission that these are "the best of the best that work for the county." Stoffa acknowledged that it bothers him as well. "There's a value to someone who walks around with a lot of history in his head. He can come up with an answer in 30 seconds that takes others 3 or 4 hours."
The Commission will meet again, hopefully in public and at a time when affected county workers can attend. Chair Marna Hayden wants to see if adjustments can be made for red-circled workers.
"I don't know that we will be trusted at this point," says Hayden.
Not when you meet in the shadows.