Chris Reese, Lancaster Township's solicitor, announced in November that township supervisors had held “several” executive sessions “over the past few months.”
In reality, the three-member board held more than a dozen meetings outside the bounds of the state's Sunshine Act, which governs how and when executive sessions should be held and announced, according to documents obtained by the Butler Eagle through an open records request.
Now, the township pledged to “make every effort” to comply with the law.
The documents, which include heavily redacted invoices submitted to the township by Reese, show at least 14 previously undisclosed executive sessions held between January and October 2020.
Announcing executive meetings is a necessary part of the state's Sunshine Act. Lancaster did not announce the sessions except at three public meetings, on Feb. 17, April 20 and Nov. 16, according to meeting minutes approved by supervisors and recordings of meetings.
Reese asserts the township complied with the law in significant respect.
“I believe that we were in compliance with the Sunshine Law and that all of those meetings were appropriate executive sessions,” he said. “I believe we could have done a better job of mentioning them in a public meeting.”
Because the records showing the sessions are limited to legal invoices and one email between supervisors referencing a March 3 meeting, they do not document sessions at which Reese was not present.
Reese said he is aware meetings occurred without him, but did not estimate how many.
Under the Sunshine Act, municipalities may hold executive sessions — which are private meetings outside the eye of the public — on a limited number of matters, including personnel, litigation, real estate transactions and emergency preparedness.
Melissa Melewsky, an attorney with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said municipalities cannot cite one of these reasons generally as a justification for holding such a meeting.
“The courts have been clear that agencies can't simply say something generic as a justification,” she said. “They can't just say 'litigation'; they shouldn't just say 'personnel.' They have to provide a reason to the public to show the executive session is appropriate.”
Lancaster — after the fact — said the meetings were held primarily for personnel matters, such as exit negotiations with former township manager Benjamin Kramer, who departed Sept. 30, and the intended hiring of new manager Danielle Rich.
It's not clear, however, how many of these meetings were to discuss that topic.
The redactions also render the invoices unable to provide information as to the topics of the meetings. In many instances, the invoice references “personnel issues,” and information preceding those two words is redacted.
For example, for one meeting on June 25, an invoice states Reese was involved in a “conference call with BOS (board of supervisors) over (redacted) personnel issues.” For a Sept. 2 meeting, the invoice has at least one full sentence missing, stating, “(Redacted) Executive meeting with BOS re same.”
Although the invoices do not explicitly show the purposes of the meetings, they show the meetings were held with regularity.
At one point last summer, meetings were held more frequently than once every six days, with seven meetings being held from May 18 through June 27.
During that 41-day span, the board members met among themselves four out of six Wednesdays, including two meetings that occurred just two days after a regularly scheduled public meeting.
In one instance, one of the public meetings included a subsequent executive session too.
Melewsky said it is not unusual for entities to hold regular executive sessions, that many municipalities and school boards have such sessions.
“That's not necessarily a cause for concern,” she said. “What would be a cause for concern is if they're using the executive sessions inappropriately to discuss things that aren't subject to executive session rules,” although Melewsky did not imply Lancaster was doing so.
Chrissy Senft, township secretary-treasurer, said in November the board had held the sessions mostly “on Wednesdays for a period of time starting in February and ending recently.”
Reese said most of these meetings were simply continued to another date. That, the township's solicitor said, is why more than a dozen executive sessions went unannounced.
“I think the primary reason is that we would most often continue the executive session to another date, and we were thinking of it as one ongoing issue, rather than separate executive sessions to announce,” Reese said.
Due to the heavy redactions to the invoices provided by the township — neither Reese's billing rate nor the number of hours he was present are on the documents — the Butler Eagle is unable to verify the length of the sessions.
Lancaster only provided documents after the Eagle appealed to the Office of Open Records its denial of a Right-to-Know request.
In a letter to a state open records appeals officer in response to the appeal, Reese stated the township will comply with the Sunshine Act in the future, but offered no insight as to why more than a dozen executive sessions were not reported to the public.
“Going forward, we will make every effort to announce upcoming executive sessions at public meetings or, where that is not possible, provide information regarding previously-held executive session (sic) that took place after the last public meeting,” the letter states.
Rich, as township manager, said she will institute changes to ensure similar Sunshine Act violations do not occur in the future. Rich was not employed by the township during the time of these meetings.
“At the municipality I previously worked for, they had regularly scheduled executive sessions immediately prior to their monthly public meetings. I would like to adopt that, where we have regularly scheduled exec sessions right before the public meeting, so that at the public meeting we can announce that we just met,” Rich said. “That will get us in the habit, so that an oversight like that never happens again.”