The Beaver Countian notified District Attorney David Lozier and the Board of Commissioners during a public work session yesterday that its was prepared to file criminal complaints against them if they meet privately to deliberate the District Attorney’s Office’s budget in any manner that violates the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act.
District Attorney Lozier addressed the Board yesterday requesting they meet with him in private to discuss his budget — he is seeking an increase in personnel and a significant increase in funding for his office next year as specified in a budget proposal he submitted to Commissioners for consideration.
The discussion started with the Commissioners trying to agree on how they will structure meetings to craft next year’s county-wide budget.
Republican Commissioner Sandie Egley said she wants open public meetings with the county’s department heads and elected row officials to discuss the budget proposals they submitted on an office-by-office basis. Republican Commissioner Dan Camp told his fellow Commissioners that he wants “informational meetings” to discuss individual office budget proposals on an “as-needed” basis — and wants those meetings to be conducted privately — with any final votes being made in a public meeting.
Democratic Commissioner Amadio also said he wanted the meetings to be conducted outside of the public’s view, “I don’t think they need to be in public.”
“Once the budget is put together then there should be public discussions, but while we’re working with our department heads I think those should be done the way they have always been done,” said Amadio. “Because the last time it was just, I don’t know what the outcome was; it wasn’t good, I can tell you that.”
The new Republican-majority Board of Commissioners conducted an open budget process last year, after learning a final budget passed the year before by the prior Democratic-majority Board of Commissioners — led by Tony Amadio — contained a projected budget deficit of about $17 million.
Commissioners Dan Camp and Tony Amadio released a statement last week condemning the public disclosure of a preliminary $9 million projected budget shortfall for next year based on the initial budget proposals submitted by department heads and row officials — both have vowed that next year’s budget will not include a tax increase. In response, Commissioner Egley gave an interview to the Beaver Countian promising the public she would continue to make sure information about the county’s finances would be released on an ongoing basis.
“If you’re looking at taking money out of our budgets it’s nice to have that discussion with you all and [Financial Administrator Ricardo Luckow] about why and you can defend or you can explain your reasoning, so we’re not finding out at the end of October that you’ve eliminated,” said District Attorney David Lozier during yesterday’s meeting.
Commissioner Egley told Lozier that she agrees the Board needs to meet with department heads and row officials to discuss their budget proposals, but that the Board can not agree on how to do so.
“I’m not in sync with the other two, I’m trying to find a happy medium here and not compromise my beliefs in how I think that this should go,” said Egley.
The Pennsylvania Sunshine Act requires the county to both deliberate and take official actions on county business in an open and public meeting. The law mandates that the public be given prior notice of the meetings, be allowed to attend and record the meetings, and be allowed to make public comment. The law provides certain exceptions, such as the discussion of confidential information which can occur during closed-door “executive sessions.”
“Let me make a formal request,” said District Attorney Lozier. “Could I have a meeting with the Commissioners and [Financial Administrator Ricardo Luckow] and maybe the Controller, to talk about my budget needs and why it changed from last year, and get your impression and get Ricardo’s recommendations […] Because I need more personnel.”
Commissioners Dan Camp and Tony Amadio both told District Attorney Lozier that they were “ok with that.”
The three County Commissioners, Controller David Rossi, and District Attorney Lozier would comprise the voting members of the County Salary Board responsible for creating positions and setting salaries for personnel in the District Attorney’s Office.
The Beaver Countian then asked permission from the Board to be heard on the matter.
“The Pennsylvania Sunshine Act mandates not only meetings in which official actions are taken be public, but also that deliberations and discussions for the purposes of making a future decision be public,” said the Beaver Countian’s John Paul during the meeting. “What I am hearing is the District Attorney specifically say he wants to discuss and deliberate with a quorum of the Board. My position will be this. If a quorum of the Board of Commissioners meets to discuss and deliberate agency business, in a manner that is not exempt from the Sunshine Act, or in a manner that is contrary to case law, I will instruct my attorneys to file a private criminal complaint against any official in that meeting and I will prosecute that complaint vigorously.”
Chief Solicitor Garen Fedeles responded that the County Law Department would research provisions of the Sunshine Act.
“Our office will look into what [John Paul] has said and will follow up with the Board and let the Board know where the law stands on that and what your options are and what your options are not,” said Fedeles.
The subject of open budget meetings was a matter of contention back in July of 2016 as well, when Sheriff Tony Guy attempted to have private meetings with the Board of Commissioners to discuss his budget proposal. Then, as now, the Beaver Countian informed county officials that it would pursue private criminal complaints if any violations of the Sunshine Act occurred during the meeting. Then-Chief County Solicitor Adrea Cantelme determined such a private meeting would be illegal and a well-attended public meeting was ultimately held to discuss the Sheriff’s Office budget.
Beaver County Democratic Register of Wills Tracey Patton also spoke up during yesterday’s work session, telling Commissioners she believes the public should be allowed to attend the meetings, “If anybody wants to attend that meeting they should be more than welcome to from my understanding.”
“I don’t understand where this is going,” said Commissioner Amadio. “You’re allowed to meet with your department heads, you’re allowed to meet with elected officials, my God you’d stymie government.”
District Attorney Lozier again told the Board he wanted to meet with them privately, saying that having the public present would not be helpful.
“We need to have a forum where we can talk with the three of you and Ricardo and talk about our needs and the County’s needs and it should start now,” said Lozier. “And public meetings are useless when it comes to detailed briefings with department heads. Having 50 people in a room doesn’t help; when decisions are made absolutely. The Sunshine Law does not require your meetings with department heads for information purposes to be made public.”
While so-called “informational meetings” are not required to be open to the public, such meetings are defined under the Sunshine Act as “conferences,” and are generally viewed as applying to gatherings such as training or educational sessions.
Pennsylvania courts have ruled that discussions of agency business, for the purpose of ultimately making a decision at some time regarding that business, constitute “deliberations” as defined by the Sunshine Act. Public officials found to be in violation of the Act face fines of up to $1,000 for the first offense and could also be held personally liable for attorney fees and costs of litigation.
Register of Wills Patton later repeated her belief during yesterday’s work session that the meetings should be open to the public, and suggested they be structured during dates that are already scheduled on the calendar so the County would not incur an added expense of advertising additional dates.
“There’s an open door policy I thought here, and if you’re having a meeting […] and if the Board is there it should be considered public,” said Patton. “But I could be wrong, I mean, I am not an attorney nor do I want to be.”
Commissioner Sandie Egley agreed with her.
“If we have meetings with your department and deliberate back and forth, that violates the Sunshine Act,” said Egley.
District Attorney David Lozier quickly shot back, “I think you should ask your attorneys that question, you are not an attorney.”
The Board of Commissioners decided to wait to hear a response from the Law Department before making a decision on how future budget meetings would be conducted.
This is not the first time District Attorney David Lozier has ignited controversy involving the public’s right of access.
In May of this year, the Beaver County Court of Common Pleas issued a rarely-seen joint order of court by Judges Dale Fouse and Harry Knafelc directing District Attorney David Lozier to release a copy of a dash cam video depicting a controversial deployment of a Beaver Police K-9.
The ruling came as a result of legal action taken by several residents of Beaver Borough after Lozier denied an open records request made by the Beaver Countian for the footage, erroneously claiming it fell under an “investigative file” exception of the Pennsylvania Right To Know Law. District Attorney Lozier had made accusations in open court that the Beaver Countian was engaged in a conspiracy to undermine the criminal justice system of Beaver County in fighting for the release of the public records.