In a township in which the Sunshine Act has repeatedly come into question, a committee meeting scheduled for Tuesday night proved to be the grounds for the latest debate on the subject.
“In general, we’ve been having this discussion about Sunshine and making sure that we don’t conduct our business in some way so that people can criticize us for violating the Sunshine Act,” said Commissioner Lew Gould (R-Ward 11) before the meeting, “and it seems to me that we’re particularly—I just don’t get why this would be a situation where we’d want to stray on the edge of not being completely open in our discussions.”
Lower Merion Township’s Ad Hoc Nominations Committee had a Tuesday night meeting scheduled to discuss appointments to the Planning Commission, Environmental Advisory Committee and the newly formed Human Relations Commission.
However, Committee Chairperson Jane Dellheim (D-Ward 8) adjourned the meeting when several concerned residents said they felt it would have been a violation of the state’s Sunshine Act. The other committee members are commissioners Gould, Cheryl Gelber (D-Ward 5) and Paul McElhaney (D-Ward 3).
“As I understand it, at least a reason why some people want the meeting to be closed to the public is so that people who are not chosen won’t have their feelings hurt,” Gould said. “But if they sought the position and they appeared in public, they have to realize that one of the options is that they may not be selected.”
Gould added that there were 20 people interviewed for seven spots on the Human Relations Commission.
“I disagree with Dellheim’s opinion that they can go into executive session for any meeting,” said Bryn Mawr resident Audrey Romasco before the meeting. “They didn’t advertise it, so even if they let us in it’s not a bona fide meeting.”
Romasco has been an advocate for open meetings in the township before and was at the front of the group of about six township residents questioning the legitimacy of holding Tuesday night’s meeting in private.
“I’m getting to the point where I’m saying I’m tired of this,” Romasco said before the meeting. “This might be the one—the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
She followed Commissioner Scott Zelov (R-Ward 10) into the Caucus Room of the Township Administration Building and asked Dellheim if she would hear her out. Dellheim agreed.
Romasco said she was not satisfied with a response she had received from Township Solicitor Gilbert High prior to the meeting because it did not address the issue of deliberations in executive sessions of the board, and reiterated her pre-meeting concern that the meeting had not been advertised or posted on the township Web site. High was not at the meeting.
Dellheim asked Romasco why she and other residents, if they were so interested, did not attend the public interviews of the Human Relations Commission candidates.
“We have people here who have attended all of the meetings,” Dellheim said.
On the meeting agenda, it listed “discussion and formulation of the structure and desired skill sets of the people we believe should be on this committee” in regard to the Human Relations Commission, followed by “deliberation with intent to fill determined structure,” which would have required narrowing a list of 20 to the seven spots on the commission.
“Generally speaking, you have a legal problem here tonight,” Romasco said, adding that if another committee member arrived in addition to the present Dellheim and McElhaney, they would have a quorum of the committee.
Both Gould and Gelber arrived shortly thereafter.
“I beg to differ, and you’ve made your point,” Dellheim said. “I agree with Gil (High)’s opinion.”
However, with added resistance from Romasco, Dellheim adjourned the meeting until she could consult further with High about the issue.
Other residents present included Commissioner Jenny Brown’s (R-Ward 2) husband Rick, Gladwyne Civic Association President Karen Aydt and Republican Committee of Lower Merion and Narberth Committee Chairman Lance Rogers.
The commissioners present argued for and against holding the meeting in public.
“Aside from what the law is, we should have these discussions in a public meeting,” Zelov said. “And I’m not suggesting we haven’t been.”
Commissioner Brian Gordon (D-Ward 12) cited not hurting the feelings of candidates who are not selected for the committee as being a good reason to not hold those discussions in public.
“We’re not really going to have a full and robust discussion,” Gordon said.
Dellheim clarified that they were convening to make recommendations and not to make choices.
But Zelov said they could discuss the merits of candidates without offending those who are not selected.
“We are really trying hard to come out with a good outcome,” said commissioner Brian McGuire (D-Ward 13). “We are trying very hard here to do the right thing.”
Dellheim then told a reporter she wanted her to “include the political dynamic” at hand, to which residents and commissioners objected.
“It’s a matter of those who favor open government and those who don’t favor open government,” Gould said.
He added that if anyone was suggesting that classification fell down party lines, that was fine.
“My opinion is, I was entrusted with a job and I’m just trying to do it and follow the law,” Dellheim said afterward.