EC council pushes back against Sunshine Act allegations

March 10, 2018 Cranberry Local News

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EVANS CITY — Tensions boiled over at Monday’s borough council meeting, after council members pushed back on accusation that they held illegal unadvertised meetings in violation of the state’s Sunshine Act.

Council member Shelley Natali, Mayor Dean Zinkhann and EDCO park President John Rogers said that they believe Sunshine violations have been taking place in the borough and pointed to several incidents in the past year, most recently a Feb. 19 parks board meeting where a quorum of council members attended and commented on borough business, in violation of open meeting laws.

“They had the quorum of three at the public meeting, which wouldn’t have been an issue if they hadn’t contributed to the discussion,” Natali said in an interview after the meeting.

The Sunshine Act governs municipal open meeting requirements, specifically that all public council meetings must be available to the public and previously advertised so residents can attend. A council meeting is whenever a quorum — in this case at least three members of the council — are in attendance and discuss borough business.

The council can hold executive sessions that are closed to the public. But members can only discuss certain topics at these meetings, such as union disputes, personnel matters, potential property purchases and pending litigation.

At the meeting, council received the complaint in the EDCO parks board report. It outlined the board’s concerns about the Feb 19 meeting as well as their suspicions about three council members meeting after the parks board meeting.

“I just think we should all play by the rules,” said Rogers at Monday’s meeting.

Council President Lee Dyer said that if any rules were broken, it was done inadvertently with no intention of violating open meeting requirements.

“If I made a violation of the Sunshine Act by making a comment at that meeting it was purely innocent,” he said. “I thought as a citizen I could come in here and raise my hand on several questions. I wasn’t behaving as a council member; I was behaving as a citizen in my opinion.”

Additionally, he said he found the wording of the letter “vindictive.”

Natali also raised concerns that the council had violated the Sunshine Act in the past.

“This is the third violation I am aware of in less than a year’s time,” she said, referring to an incident in July 2017 and one in January of this year. “So I really think something needs to be done.”

Dyer disagreed with that assessment.

“At no time have any laws been broken. Period,” Dyer said.

The meeting in July, he said, was an “inadvertent meeting” which the council immediately reported and ratified to ensure everything was above board.

The meeting in January was an executive session about union matter, which is allowed under the Sunshine Act, Dyer said.

That meeting was also ratified by council.

Dyer also questioned whether the parks board hadn’t violated the act when drafting their report.

“By the way John, did you discuss this in closed session?” he asked. “Because EDCO park authority is under the same rules and regulations as this council.”

Rogers denied this, saying he always tries to be as safe as he can.

“We’ll be watching,” Dyer said.

Mayor Zinkhann raised accusations as well, alleging that council members Dyer, Kim Armstrong and John McKinney met illegally after the parks meet in February.

“I just witnessed that three of you met afterward,” he said. “Which I thought was also illegal.”

Dyer denied that the meeting was illegal as they were not discussing matters of council.

“Three council members can get together anytime they want to as long as they don’t talk about business,” Dyer said. “We were talking about the American Legion and the memorial service up there and offering for the rotary to help. And there’s an independent witness that can testify to that too.”

Council members then criticized Zinkhann for allegedly following people in the borough.

“You’ve been following me for seven years,” said Armstrong. “I feel unsafe about you following me.”

Dyer then told the mayor if it continues there would be consequences.

“You’ve been following a number of people, mister. A number,” he said. “You’ve been driving in people’s driveways tooting horns, flashing lights, following Ms. Armstrong around, following me around, and I’m just telling you I’m done with that and if you do it again there’ll be repercussions.”

Zinkhann replied that he is permitted to be on public roads and that nothing he is doing is illegal.

“I’m allowed to blow the horn and wave at people. People like me,” he said. “I’m sorry people like me so much.”

After the meeting Dyer clarified that he and other members have taken steps to avoid any appearance of malfeasance. They do not meet alone unless absolutely necessary, and in those cases they are sure to bring an outside witness.

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