- Grove City, Pennsylvania

December 30, 2013

Did Rock council violate law?

By Monica Pryts/Staff Writer
Allied News

SLIPPERY ROCK — Slippery Rock council should have allowed public comment at its Nov. 19 budget meeting, according to the state's Sunshine Act, but only a judge can rule whether they violated the law.

"The borough's refusal to provide such an opportunity raises compliance issues," said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association.

Agencies like borough councils can put "reasonable regulations" in place to govern the conduct of meetings, but they cannot eliminate public comment or interfere with the intent of the Sunshine Act to foster public participation at meetings, she said, adding the alleged violation must be pursued by a member of the public because it is a citizen-enforced law.

"Any individual has the right to pursue the criminal and/or civil penalties in the law; there is no government agency responsible for Sunshine Act compliance," Melewsky said Thursday.

Council met Nov. 19 to discuss the proposed budget for 2014 and they voted in favor of advertising the spending plan, but they prohibited public comment, and it wasn't listed as an agenda item.

Council member Itzi Meztli at the end of the meeting questioned the lack of a public comment period, with council Vice President Christy Tichy saying it was a budget-only meeting and the public hadn't seen the budget; therefore, they couldn't comment on it. President Dave Miller was absent. "I find that very disconcerting. What if they want to comment on anything else?" Meztli asked.

Tichy again denied time for public comment.

Nov. 19 was the same meeting that got off to a tense start - chaos erupted between council and part of the crowd, which included friends and family of Frank Monteleone Jr., who shot and killed himself Nov. 16 in the parking lot of the borough building. Monteleone, 52, of Slippery Rock Township, owned many rental properties in the borough, and often disagreed with council on issues including the bulk trash pickup date.

Meztli had asked for a moment of silence in Monteleone's memory at the beginning of the meeting, and council member Bob Bowser objected, referring to what he considers threatening ads Monteleone ran in the Butler Eagle this summer; he felt they implied violent actions against council.

Tichy read a statement on council's behalf offering sympathies to Monteleone's family, but one woman in the crowd said she didn't think they were being sincere.

That's when people on both sides of the room started yelling over each other, at least one person telling council they should be ashamed. Police Chief Terry Fedokovitz had to step in and silence the crowd, reminding them that someone had died.

Bowser later apologized to Monteleone's longtime girlfriend Bonnie Davis, who was also at the budget meeting.

At this past Tuesday's council meeting, Meztli said he feared council violated the Sunshine Act by not allowing public comment at the budget meeting, and he wanted to bring it to the attention of borough solicitor Neva Stanger, who wasn't at the Nov. 19 meeting.

The law says public comment must be allowed during any advertised meeting where official action takes place, and a violation could carry a fine of $100 to $1,000 that must be paid by the convicted individual, he said. "I do not want to be liable for that," he said.

Stanger said she appreciated his concerns but didn't want to be questioned like she was "on the stand" in regards to whether she thought council violated the Sunshine Act.

While voting on the minutes for the Nov. 19 meeting, Meztli asked that the records show he objected to the lack of public comment; council agreed to amend the minutes.

When asked about who on council could face possible Sunshine Act violations, Melewsky said council as a whole could be subject to civil litigation, but Tichy "would likely be the party pursued in a criminal case since it was, apparently, her sole decision to prohibit public comment."

Melewsky explained penalties associated with the Sunshine Act if a judge determines a violation took place. Violating the law is a summary offense punishable by fines ranging from $100 to $1,000, plus court costs, and the local district judge would oversee the criminal aspects of the act.

A civil court - the Court of Common Pleas - could invalidate official action taken in violation of the law; enter an injunction preventing future, similar actions; or order other appropriate remedies, she said.

Also at Tuesday's meeting:

Outgoing council members Jerry Heller and Royce Lorentz were recognized and honored with certificates of appreciation presented by Mayor Ken Harris for their time serving on council, Heller with 16 years and Lorentz with 20.

Heller later said it is common for a few "controversial issues" to come up every now and then, and there will always be different opinions about how to approach them, but "that's normal and that's good." "But we don't have to be mad at each other...We need to bring civility," he said.

Heller hopes the new year gets off to a good start, but if someone speaks out of turn, he urges them to keep in mind the person you're being mean to is your neighbor, Lorentz echoing his thoughts.

"This is a small community. We're all neighbors," Heller said.

Published Dec. 7, 2013, in Allied News. Pick up a copy at 201 A Erie St., Grove City.