Open meetings act restricts secret-ballot action
PENNSYLVANIA — A secret-ballot vote in an open meeting is not considered “publicly cast,” as required by the state sunshine act, according to an early February decision by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg.
The appeals court concluded that to construe a secret vote in an open meeting as within the definition of “publicly cast” would allow officials to conduct all the public’s business beyond scrutiny. Because the open meetings act did not intend to give officials such a choice, the court reversed a lower court’s dismissal of a newspaper’s claim against a local school district.
The claim arose after the Chambersburg Area School District’s board of directors held a secret-ballot vote during a public meeting in late December 1993 to fill a vacancy after the death of one of its members.
Public Opinion, a Chambersburg newspaper, asked the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas in Chambersburg in early January 1994 to prevent the directors from appointing the board-elected official. The newspaper argued that the secret ballot violated the state open meetings law requirement that officials publicly cast votes on official action.
The school board filed a motion one week later, asking the court to dismiss the complaint. The school board argued that the directors had cast their votes publicly, even though they kept them from the public, because they held the vote at a public meeting. The board held another public meeting that same day, unanimously appointing the same candidate.
The court dismissed the action in late March, and Public Opinion appealed in mid-April. (Public Opinion v. Chambersburg Area School District; Media Counsel: J. McDowell Sharpe, Chambersburg)