Reader question: Does Sunshine law require executive session for contract negotiations?

A concerned taxpayer in York County asked the following: “…do you know if school boards (and other public bodies) are REQUIRED to negotiate contracts behind closed doors? … I know that contract and personnel matters MAY be discussed in closed sessions, but I’m curious to know if they must be.”

The answer is no. I don’t see anything in the law that requires public bodies to hold such negotiations in private. It’s worth noting that Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act includes a provision that someone who is the subject of an executive session — for whatever reason — can request that the session be open to the public.

Melissa Melewsky, counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, explained:

“The Sunshine Act does not require executive sessions for
collective bargaining or personnel matters but the law does allow them. The Legislature acknowledged that some matters can be appropriate
for private discussions for a number of reasons; thus the creation of
executive session exceptions. I’m not an expert on the school code
or collective bargaining but I’m not aware of any provision that
requires private negotiations although the laws assume it will be done in
that manner (there are public notice provisions that require a minimum
for what must be released during the process).”

About Scott Blanchard

Sunday editor at the York (Pa.) Daily Record/Sunday News. Follow me on Twitter and Google+.
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2 Responses to Reader question: Does Sunshine law require executive session for contract negotiations?

  1. Joel Sears says:

    Scott – thanks very much for looking into this important matter. Taxpayers have been told over and over again that the curtain MUST be drawn whenever “contracts or personnel matters” are discussed. I can certainly understand why a school board would use a closed executive session to get to the bottom of a rumor that might destroy a teacher’s reputation if it got out.
    However, there is NO reason why contracts should be hidden from view until they’ve already been signed. These are public expenditures and the public deserves to be heard BEFORE these contracts are finalized.

  2. Joel, thanks for raising the question. I think a lot of times, lawyers — intentionally or unintentionally — confuse what is allowed by law with what is required. It’s much easier to deflect questions about why a meeting isn’t open by saying ‘we don’t have a choice; it’s the law.’ Although, in cases such as contract negotiations or business deals, it seems an agency does have a legit reason/need to discuss things privately. But I think most people who advocate for open government would say that the process should be as transparent as possible.

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