Thursday, April 27, 2006

Incorrect assignment of blame

Wednesday's Valley News Dispatch had an editorial criticizing the Tarentum Borough Council for the illegal use of executive session on April 17 (discussed here and here on this blog). The editorial points a finger of blame at the borough solicitor saying he "should have at least asked Newcomer why the session was needed before it started."

I don't see why the borough solicitor should have the responsibility of policing the meetings of the Council. If someone knows of such a responsibility in his job description, perhaps they can identify it to me.

Many people could have asked such a question. A member of the public, such as myself, could have asked. The press could have asked. Any member of the council, including its president, could have asked. The fact that the solicitor was the lawyer in the room does not in itself make him responsible for cross-examining the members of the council that employs him.

I would not be surprised if the borough solicitor heard the statement that the private meeting was for a "personal matter" as a denial that any borough business would be discussed. That was how I heard it. Then I was surprised later by the news that there had been an unrevealed purpose for the executive session. If no borough business had been discussed, the state Sunshine Act would not have had any application at all to the private meeting.

The public was misled. The responsibility rests with those who asked for the executive session without revealing to the public what they intended to discuss in private.

Update 05-02-06.

The Valley News Dispatch did not post this editorial on their website. While I was on vacation a friend emailed me a scan of the editorial, which I was not able to post to my blog at that time because of the lack of software I knew how to use. Although I take issue with one point in the editorial, it is well worth reading. Click the thumbnail image of the scanned editorial to see a readable version.


Anonymous said...

Dear Pastor,

That is the job of a solicitor, at a meeting of a borough to know the law and to have advised in a situation such as this.

It is his responsibility to keep council informed of any rule violations.

Thank you,

Stewart said...

Dear anonymous,

If you are quoting from some document that gives the solicitor that duty, I wish you would identify it.

I have seen the solicitor give advice in meetings when requested. But if the solicitor were supposed to intervene unasked with advice every time a motion is made that had implications for following or violating a rule, meetings would easily double in length and observors might wonder whether it was the solicitor or the president who was actually running the meeting.

In my opinion, it is the duty of the voting members of council to know the rules well enough to follow them or to recognize those times when they need advice from the solicitor.

sonnysarver said...

That is the job of a solicitor. That is what he gets paid to do. In a matter such as this one yes someone should have said something on council but the solicitor should have spoke up. Is is his total fault no but he is the person with the legal background.

Stewart said...

I've been thinking about the two responses to this entry, and I recognize that the view of the VND and the two commenters reflect popularly held assumptions about the role of the solicitor. These are not stupid opinions by any means, but I believe they are incorrect and unsupported.

I asked in the original post for someone to identify the source of this alleged responsibility, and so far have not been shown or pointed to an official document that assigns duties as described by the commenters.

The Pennsylvania Borough Code in sections 1116 and 1117 states the duties of the solicitor. I have not been able to find an online copy of the text, but I'll type it in here if I really need to. (It does not include the ideas stated by the two commenters.)

I see one clause (in section 1117) which might open the door for the Borough Council to have assigned him the responsibility to speak up: "shall do every professional act incident to the office which he may be authorized or required to do by the council or mayor." Reading that clause, I come back to my original question whether there is an official document or action by the Council that gave the solicitor the duty to speak up in that Council meeting under the specific and unusual circumstances that emerged.

I still don't see it.