Newtown News Update

Welcome to March 4, 2018, issue of "Newtown News Update." The opinions expressed here are solely the personal opinions of John Mack and do not reflect the opinions of any other person or entity. If you are not a subscriber, please subscribe here. If you are a subscriber and do not wish to receive further updates, please use the "Unsubscribe" link at the bottom of this email.

National Sunshine Week

Know Your Right to Access Public Information!

Citizens from across the country are now gearing up for this year’s Sunshine Week (March 11-17) to once again spark a nationwide discussion about the critical importance of access to public information. Sunshine Week was created by the American Society of News Editors and is now coordinated in partnership with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, but freedom of information isn’t just a press issue. It is a cornerstone of democracy, enlightening and empowering people to play an active role in their government at all levels. It helps keep public officials honest, makes government more efficient, and provides a check against abuse of power.

To participate in this “event,” I decided to host a PA Right-to-Know Law Quiz, the results of which I present below. If you have not yet taken my quiz, you may be interested in taking it now before you see the answers. It takes less than 1 minute and no personal information is collected.

Take the Quiz Now!

Even Some Public Officials May Not Know the Law
I have a personal interest in access to public information. At the July 6, 2017, Newtown Township Zoning Hearing Board meeting, before I was elected Supervisor, I asked the Solicitor if it was OK for me to use my cell phone to video record part of the meeting. My polite request was denied and consequently I have no video record of my testimony in opposition to KVK Tech’s request for zoning variance (for more on that, read "Attacking the Root of the Opioid Crisis - Pharmaceutical Companies").

Little did I know that this refusal was in violation of the Pennsylvania Right-to-Know Law (aka PA Sunshine Act). According to the PA Office of Open Records, “The Sunshine Act allows meetings to be recorded with an audio recorder or a video recorder. It also allows agencies to issue rules concerning the use of recording devices in order to avoid any disruptions. However, such rules should not be an attempt to prevent a member of the public from recording a meeting.”

Apparently, not many people are aware of this and other open record rights granted to them under the Sunshine Act.

Use of Cell Phones to Record Meetings
Until recently every Newtown Board of Supervisors meeting agenda stated at the top: “Please Turn Off Cell Phones During Meeting”, which I thought might discourage residents from using their phones to record the meeting. Consequently, I requested that this phrase be replaced with “Please Silence Cell Phones During the Meeting.” My request was granted.

How knowledgeable are the residents of Newtown Township and other PA municipalities of their rights under the Sunshine Act? To find out, my Quiz asks the following 6 questions:

  1. True or False? It is permissible for anyone to create a video or audio recording of a public meeting using a cell phone.
  2. How many business days does the township have to respond to a request for public records? Choices: 2, 5, 7, 30?
  3. Can the township ask why a person wants to obtain open records? Choices: Yes, Yes, but…, No
  4. Can the township charge a fee to grant a request?
  5. Are records maintained by a township supervisor or employee on their personal computers or cell phones subject to the Right-to-Know Law?
  6. True or False? Requests for audio or video taken by law enforcement now fall outside the Right-to-Know law.

To date 50 people have taken the quiz. The following chart is a summary of the results sorted according to % Correct Responses.

So, How Did You Do?

Here are the correct answers with some more information.

Q1: The answer is TRUE. It is the ABSOLUTE right of all persons to record all public meetings, including meetings of the Planning Commission, Zoning Hearing Board, and other committees of the Township, as long as the recording does not interfere with the meeting or other people’s ability to view/hear the meeting. The law defines a meeting as "any prearranged gathering of an agency which is attended or participated in by a quorum of the members of an agency held for the purpose of deliberating agency business or taking official action."

Q2: The township has up to 5 business days to respond to an open records request. Under certain circumstances it may request a 30-day extension, but this request must be made within the first 5 days. To make a request for a public record from Newtown Township, use the form found here.

Q3: The answer is YES, BUT... The township can ask why a person wants to obtain open records -- but the requester is not required to answer. However, in some cases knowing the answer could actually help the township better respond to a request.

Q4: The answer is YES. The PA Office of Open Records has established an Official Fee Structure which governs the fees the township may charge under the Right-to-Know Law. For example, for a DVD the township can charge up to actual cost, not to exceed $3.00 per disc.

Q5: The answer is MAYBE. It depends on whether the records document a transaction or activity of the township.

Q6: The answer is TRUE. Requests for audio or video taken by law enforcement are now governed by Act 22 of 2017, which specifies that requests must be made directly to the Police Department Open Records Officer. For information about right-to-know requests for the Newtown Township Police Department, click here.

At a future Newtown Township Board of Supervisors meeting, I hope to introduce a resolution supporting openness to improve public access to records and encourage training of government employees to ensure compliance with existing laws mandating open records and meetings.

McGrath To Pay Newtown Township $25K for Surreptitiously and Illegally Cutting Down Valuable Beech Tree

As reported in the Newtown Patch, "Newtown Township Supervisor Jen Dix said the board on Wednesday unanimously voted to accept the payment as a settlement for the action. The European copper beech tree was illegally removed during the development of the Villas at Newtown.

Preservation of the tree was a condition of approval when Newtown Township approved the development in 2006, but contractors took it down without getting advance approval by the township."

Under the agreement, McGrath was not required to admit liability. The wood from Beech trees is used for making ornaments, tool handles, kitchen utensils, furniture and parts of buildings, which leads me to ask: Did McGrath sell the wood from this tree for more than $25,000 and make a profit?

Ms. Dix noted on her Facebook page: "With a new BOS majority you can finally hold a builder accountable for breaking their contract!"

John Mack