Sunshine investigation rare, official says

    Pennsylvania’s top open records official says the Montgomery County grand jury investigation into a potential violation of the state sunshine law is an unusual, but welcome development.

    County commissioners Joe Hoeffel and Jim Matthews have received subpoenas about their breakfast meetings at the Jem Restaurant.

    A reporter from the Norristown Times Herald overheard the pair discussing county business. Because they constitute a majority of the three member county commission, their conversation could violate the legal requirement that official deliberations take place only in public meetings.

    Both men have said their meetings were social and didn’t violate the law.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    Terry Mutchler, director of the state open records office, says it’s up to county district attorneys to enforce the sunshine law, and they’re usually not interested.

    “If you’re a DA and you have to decide between taking a look at a sexual assault case and a violation of the open meetings, sunshine law, you’re going to see where most folks come out on that,” Mutchler said.

    Mutchler said it’s encouraging to see Montgomery County prosecutor Risa Vetri Ferman take the sunshine law seriously.

    “I think it’s good for district attorneys to get this up on their radar screen, because the reality is, this is where the (political) deals are  made,” she said.

    But Mutchler said the law may be overly restrictive when a government agency has so few members.

    “If you only have a three member board, (the law says) two members can’t talk,” Mutchler said. “How does that work as a practical reality? I want my local commissioners to do the most effective job that they can with taxpayer money, and if I am precluded from talking, how do I do that?”

    The state constitution provides that every county in the commonwealth have a commissioners board of exactly three members.

    Mutchler said that means conversations in diners, bowling alleys, and parking lots could conceivably violate the law. She said some revision of the law might be advisable.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal