SEPTA advisory committee adjusts open meeting policy

SEPTA’s Citizen Advisory Committee has decided to try out changes in its open meeting policy in response to SEPTA staff concerns.

At its June plenary meeting on Tuesday, the advisory board agreed to test out holding closed meetings with SEPTA officials before the group’s open meetings.

SEPTA officials invited to speak at the group’s meetings will have the chance to discuss what SEPTA and the CAC consider confidential matters in private prior to the public session.

Some SEPTA officials had expressed concern that the open nature of the advisory board’s meetings were allowing confidential information to be reported in the press before SEPTA was ready to go public with it. They began limiting the presentations SEPTA staffers had been giving to the CAC after PlanPhilly reported SEPTA’s decision to ditch regional rail numbers, basing its reporting on a presentation Harry Garforth, manager of rail planning, gave to a CAC committee in February.

The CAC hopes the changes will strike a balance between agency transparency while allowing the group to give technical advice to SEPTA staff earlier in the planning process for major initiatives.

After PlanPhilly expressed concerns that SEPTA could abuse the closed meeting provisions to avoid substantive discussions in a public forum, CAC rail vice chairman Bob Clearfield said the group would hold SEPTA officials accountable and prevent that from happening.

Clearfield said the point of the changes wasn’t to prevent SEPTA officials from making impolitic comments — at last month’s plenary meeting, general manager Joe Casey said he hoped union leadership lost membership elections — but to provide a space to more actively engage in SEPTA’s planning process.

Clearfield and other CAC members, including Aissia Richardson, who is running for CAC chair, said the change should come with increased access on the part of SEPTA to its decision-making process.

CAC member Sarah Thorp agreed, saying that Casey should instruct SEPTA officials to be more open with the group.

The changes will be implemented for the CAC’s July meetings and will be debated again after elections for leadership positions are held later this month.

SEPTA’s general counsel issued an opinion that the group is not covered by the state’s public meetings law, which only allows closed sessions of public entities to discuss private legal or human resources matters.

The CAC is empowered by SEPTA’s enabling legislation to advise the general manager and receive briefings on the authority’s budgets.

More information about the CAC, as well as a schedule of meetings, can be found at SEPTA’s website.

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