A Pennsylvania school district violated the state’s open meetings law last year when it held a meeting with local business owners to discuss litigation behind closed doors, a state appellate court ruled last week.
A three-judge appellate court panel ruled on Aug. 5 that the Highlands school board’s nonpublic meeting last June with local shopping center representatives to discuss a property tax assessment appeal did not fall under the open meetings law exemption that protects the private discussion of litigation strategy with a party’s attorney, since the shopping center representatives were opposing litigants.
“The meeting appears to have provided the Shopping Center a private audience with the Board or an opportunity to lobby the Board to support its position on the tax question,” Judge Patricia A. McCullough wrote in the decision. “[M]eeting with a taxpayer in this circumstance has the ‘odor of favoritism’ that the Sunshine Act does not tolerate.”
The case began when a reporter for the Valley News Dispatch was barred from attending an executive session, or closed meeting, held by the school board to discuss litigation, even though representatives of the shopping center — the opposing litigants — and both party’s attorneys were invited to attend.
On June 10, 2009, Trib Total Media, Inc., which owns the newspaper, asked the trial court to find that the school district violated the state open meetings law when it closed the meeting, but the court did not agree and dismissed the newspaper’s complaint, ruling that including the shopping center representatives was “necessary to carry out the purpose of the meeting.”
The appellate court, however, rejected the school district’s argument that the meeting was properly closed because the school board needed to meet with its attorneys to discuss litigation in private.
“The scope of [the attorney-client litigation strategy exemption] to the Sunshine Act is confined to private consultations between the agency and its counsel or advisors regarding litigation strategy and information — subjects that must be kept confidential to protect an agency’s ability to settle or defend those matters — and the presence of opposing parties would undermine the essential purpose of such a meeting.”
The court also rejected the school district’s argument that requiring an open meeting would frustrate the use of alternative dispute resolution. “Rather than a settlement conference, the pleadings show that a quorum of the Board provided the Shopping Center with a private audience, free from public scrutiny, to discuss its tax litigation,” wrote McCullough, who also noted that state law does not require a quorum of the board to be present for settlement discussions.