A Philadelphia court ruled against the local news media Friday in a fight over the mayor and city council’s alleged violation of the state’s Sunshine Act in a closed-door meeting last week.
Barred from attending the meeting, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News filed a petition Wednesday afternoon in which they claimed that the city’s refusal to bar "the public . . . from attending the meeting will violate the [Sunshine] Act and cause irreparable harm." The Inquirer said it was the third meeting this year from which Mayor Michael Nutter has banned reporters.
The mayor and 17 city council members were at the meeting, which was held the day before Nutter announced a projected deficit of more than $1 billion over the next five years if the city doesn’t significantly cut spending and staff, The Inquirer reported Monday.
Deputy City Solicitor Christopher DiFusco told The Inquirer that the meeting was an informal discussion, not a deliberation over budget cuts, and therefore did not fall under the Sunshine Act.
In effect, Judge Gary F. Di Vito agreed.
Di Vito noted in his opinion that while the newspapers’ complaint listed Nutter and City Council President Anna Verna as defendants, the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act "applies only to agencies, not individuals."
Di Vito went on to say that the news outlets offered "no competent evidence" that would show official action had been taken at the meeting, so he was unable to stop any action by law.
He also added that the meeting itself had ended, obviating the need for "immediate relief."
"The judge is saying that the statute doesn’t give the right to get prospective relief, meaning he can’t rule ahead of time to keep meetings open," said Christopher Casey, attorney for the newspapers. "We disagree on that. Our only relief is to challenge any action taken at the meeting, but we don’t have that because the meeting was closed. We believe they read [the Act] too narrowly."
Melissa Melewsky, Media Law Counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, also decried the judge’s decision.
"The notion that discussions, questions and answers, sharing of information, fact-finding and information gathering are permissible in a closed-door meeting is contrary to the intent of the Sunshine Act," she wrote in an e-mail.