Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Council Emails Raise Legal Concern Did Dormont Officials Violate State's Sunshine Act in Exchange about Hiring?

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Council Emails Raise Legal Concern Did Dormont Officials Violate State's Sunshine Act in Exchange about Hiring?

Article excerpt

A recent email exchange among Dormont's council and borough manager about doing business with an environmental engineering firm has drawn criticism from two council members for being conducted in private.

Two lawyers who are experts in open-government issues say the emails appear to constitute deliberation and voting by a quorum outside of a public meeting, which is contrary to the Sunshine Act.

Several council members and the Dormont solicitor said no breach occurred.

The communications dealt with hiring Hazen and Sawyer, a global firm with a Pittsburgh office, for $60,000 to assemble bid-ready documents and apply for a state grant to fix storm water problems.

A council vote on whether to hire the firm is set for Monday.

But a majority of council members appear to have already told borough manager Jeffrey Naftal by email that they support using Hazen and Sawyer.

Mr. Naftal alerted council April 9 to a grant opportunity with the state Department of Community & Economic Development that could pay for the bulk of a proposed $400,000 storm water remediation project. The application deadline is July 21. That project has not been approved by council.

"If there is interest among council in pursuing this, I will need to give Hazen and Sawyer the go ahead now, and then present their formal proposal to council for approval at the May meeting," Mr. Naftal wrote. "Please let me know your thoughts on this as soon as you can."

Council members quickly responded. Onnie Costanzo, for instance, wrote, "I support hiring Hazen andCo Sawyer ... ." And Joan Hodson emailed, "I am OK with taking whatever avenues we need to and get this taken care of."

The two council members concerned about their peers' actions - John Maggio and Drew Lehman - did not indicate by email their thoughts on using the firm.

Craig J. Staudenmaier, a Harrisburg attorney, called the council members' responses "clearly deliberation."

"When you're saying, 'I'm in favor of going ahead, let's hire them,' you're moving from deliberation to voting, and you've got to do that in public," Mr. Staudenmaier said.

Mr. Maggio said he was troubled that his colleagues were "conducting business without input from the public, making decisions without having meetings first to discuss it."

Mr. Lehman said he was leery about private communications.

"I just stayed out of the fray," Mr. Lehman said. "I don't feel it's up to us to do that via email. We can have discussions on different subjects, but I don't feel that projects and things that affect the citizens and tax dollars and so forth should be held without public comment, without the proper vetting of questions and answers."

Dormont solicitor John Rushford said the responses from council referred merely to placing an item on Monday's agenda. …

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