April 8, 2009
Submitted by Commissioner Jenny Brown
Sunshine is Not a Republican or Democrat Issue; It’s an American Principle
Judging by the diversity and size of the group of residents who respectfully protested the closed
Ad Hoc Budget Committee meeting last week, the Sunshine Movement in Lower Merion cannot
be marginalized or dismissed. There were Democrats, Republicans, Independents, senior
citizens, college students, at least one high school student, men, women, residents from eastern,
central and western Lower Merion, workers and retirees. What this diverse group obviously
shared was a passion to improve the results of government for all, increase public participation
and deepen public trust.
It was a truly remarkable experience to see this group come together to ask their elected
representatives to let them see and participate in the governing process. Commissioners Gould,
Zelov and I were there, but I wish that my four remaining colleagues on the AHB Committee had
been willing to come into the room to share the experience and be inspired by it.
Open government is a founding principle of our representative democracy and TRUST is the
vital link between the government and the governed. Sadly, the Lower Merion Board of
Commissioners is damaging the public trust by shutting out the public and keeping confidential,
important information that should be disclosed. Worse, by impugning the motives of the
Sunshine Movement, the majority has tried to deflect attention away from their refusal to open
meetings. The diversity within the Sunshine Movement disproves the claim that it is motivated
by partisan politics.
Open government is not a partisan issue; it’s an American principle. At every opportunity, our
Board should promote and encourage public presence and participation. Lower Merion is
fortunate to have a talented and intelligent populace and we can only benefit by engaging this
valuable resource. Moreover, elected officials cannot be held accountable if the public does not
know of their decisions or what informs them and cannot see the deliberative process.
Of course certain topics are exempt from the Sunshine Act, but such topics are not and have not
been the subject of the closed budget meetings. At the closed meeting on Wednesday, Staff gave
a very informative, well researched and documented presentation of certain options for reducing
future Township expenses. Commissioners Gould, Zelov and I asked that the information be
presented in a public meeting and were advised that the individual Commissioners will be asked
to tell the Manager their reaction to the options and if a majority is in favor, the options will be
presented publicly in May or June.
The problems with this approach are obvious - only some commissioners have the benefit of the
presentation by Township staff and Commissioners do not have the benefit of hearing their
colleagues’ thoughts and views on the options. Further, if a majority’s preliminary preference is
against the options, the public never has the opportunity to hear the options, offer their views,
and influence the process. At the Fall budget hearings, the public will simply be told that there
were no viable options to reduce spending.
In response to the protest, one Commissioner has suggested that the budget process be moved to
closed sessions of the full Board. Instead of driving the process further into the back room, our
Board should be inspired by the non-partisan protesters, to work together to open the meetings so
that the Proposed Budget and the difficult choices it should include in these economic times, will
truly reflect public knowledge and participation.
In my ward, bipartisanship is a foundation of the community and of my relationship with my
constituents. We have had many significant issues and we have faced them, not as Republicans
or Democrats, but as neighbors and friends who engage each other to meet challenges. We could
never have accomplished our successes were it not for that strong bi-partisan foundation and the
solutions that were offered by the residents themselves. Even when we have not eventually
prevailed, the bipartisan and open process has served to strengthen our bonds.
Our Board of Commissioners can still turn contention into consensus if we simply agree that
openness is not a Republican or Democrat principle. It is good government and we should
embrace and promote it at every opportunity.
Lower Merion Township Commissioner, Ward 2
Sunshine Law states meeting of Agency must be in public
February 21, 2009
On December 11, 2008 I addressed the Board of Commissioner at the public hearing of the 2009 Budget and CIP. The following remarks are excerpted.
“It is my experience that the most thoughtful and productive budgeting process involves an open and thorough exchange of opinions. I was seriously taken aback last week when I realized that the Ad Hoc Budget committee and the Ad Hoc CIP committee were constituted in such a manner to circumvent the presence of a quorum and thus open meeting laws. Not only does this deprive the citizens of information crucial to understanding choices the Commissioners are making, it de facto deprives half the Board of access to these conversations.
Commissioner Reed and Commissioner Gordon, notably, have stated that they reflect the sentiments of many of their constituents who want no degradation of services. I fully believe that they DO represent those feelings. My question is: How do their constituents even know what services might be impacted?
Much has been made of the fact that the Commissioners were presented with $2.5 million of possible cuts to the budget from which $800K was chosen. I dare say the public would be more appreciative of your hard work if they could have witnessed your deliberation.
Finally, I would tell you that the biggest loser from the lack of transparency is the Board of Commissioners. Not only are half of you left out of the initial formative process, not only are you deprived of the informed opinion of your constituents, not only do you foster a suspicion that there is something to hide (as unfounded as that may be), but you now are forced to spend hour upon hour, week after week at what amounts to the eleventh hour of the “process” arguing and justifying your positions many of which might have been resolved earlier.
Economic forecasts suggest that town budgets will continue to be under strain for the foreseeable future. In the new year, I ask that you make the citizens of Lower Merion your “partner” in the budget process through greater transparency.
The Board has thus far chosen to continue on a path of “secret” Ad Hoc committee meetings. They have referred such issues as public contributions to private non-profit agencies, potential restructuring of trash pick-up, staffing levels, and prioritizing of capital expenditures to name a few to these closed meetings. There is no doubt that deliberations occur and recommendations are made to the full Board. At least five times during the Dec. 17th, 2008 budget hearing alone, the Commissioners defensively cited the AHBC and the AHCIPC as the vehicle for extensively “vetting” the budget.
The Board’s rationalization for continuing this practice is varied. They are worried about the morale of the staff if it is known they are considering options that may result in staff reduction. They are worried about posturing of Commissioners before the public. But mostly they are worried that deliberating in public and accepting public comment is cumbersome, time-consuming, and (though they might disavow this) puts them in uncomfortable scrutiny over hard choices.
As citizens and taxpayers we have a legal right and responsibility to, with all civility, give our Commissioners our input. We cannot do this if we are locked out of the process. I urge you to contact your individual commissioner and the Board as a whole and tell them to follow the Sunshine Act and open the Ad Hoc Committee meetings.