Meetings conducted by a new group organized to coordinate projects in the works within the city of Titusville should be open to the public, according to a media attorney, but the newspaper and the public are not invited to attend.
The group, unofficially titled the Titusville Planning and Partnership Meeting (TPPM), meets quarterly or as needed, according to Titusville City Manager Larry Manross.
Members of the group formerly had attended meetings of the Titusville Area Chamber of Commerce’s Transportation Committee, and some still do. The Transportation Committee held its most recent monthly meeting, March 9.
TPPM has declined a request by the Chamber and The Titusville Herald to attend its future meetings.
TPPM has met once since its inception, according to Manross, and that meeting resulted in the postponement of a major local construction project — the planned three-month closure and refurbishment of the South Franklin Street Bridge — due to concerns over its impact on other local construction projects planned for the year.
Manross told the paper that those invited to attend TPPM meetings are determined by what project, or projects, are being discussed.
Manross said the first meeting was attended by himself, four members of Titusville City Council, two Crawford County commissioners, and representatives from PennDOT and the county planning commission. Future meetings, he said, may also include Titusville Public Works representatives.
According to Media Law Counsel Melissa Melewsky, who was contacted by The Herald, said the meetings must be made open to the public if there is a quorum of government bodies present.
Since Titusville City Council is a five-member board, three constitute a quorum. Of Crawford County’s three-person board of commissioners, two constitute a quorum.
Both bodies exceeded that number by one at the first TPPM meeting that was closed to the public.
When Manross was contacted about this issue, he responded that he would make sure fewer numbers from those governing bodies would be present at future meetings instead of opening the meetings to the public.
“They’re just coordination meetings,” Manross told The Herald, claiming “There are no decisions being made.”
Manross said TPPM recommended to PennDOT “to do something different for scheduling of conflicting schedules on the Franklin Street Bridge and detour paving.”
He added that projects being discussed at TPPM meetings are for “early planning,” and that any decisions made regarding projects would be made public after the fact.
The South Franklin Street Bridge project was discussed at a public city council meeting on Feb. 21, with representatives from PennDOT outlining timelines, detours, and project scope.
The Sunshine Act goes beyond just the quorum issue to include meetings where “deliberation” that leads up to a final decision takes place.
“Official action and deliberation by a quorum of the members of an agency shall take place at a meeting open to the public,” the Sunshine Act states.
Exceptions to open meetings include executive sessions, participation in a conference, and certain circumstances for boards of auditors.
Under conferences, the Sunshine Act states, “Deliberation of agency business may not occur at a conference.”
Manross told The Herald that he likened the meetings to executive sessions.
The deliberations undertaken at TPPM meetings do not fall under the Sunshine Act’s definitions of executive sessions.
“They are choosing to exclude the public,” Melewsky advised the paper. “That’s a problem.”
She said such meetings should include “input from constituents and not just a select group of invitees.”
That decision-making process being undertaken during, at least, the first TPPM meeting should provide the public an opportunity to “witness” the deliberations.
Melewsky said the Sunshine Act “applies to all stages of policy making, including its genesis.”
Regarding Manross’ stated intention to simply invite a smaller number of city council and county commissioners to the meetings, Melewsky explained, “You can’t intentionally avoid a quorum in order to intentionally avoid public access. It’s counter productive. Government functions best when there’s an informed community.”
She said the postponement of the South Franklin Street Bridge project is a clear example of the community impact of the meetings.
The Herald was tipped off by a community member that the bridge project had been postponed to 2018. That tip was confirmed by a PennDOT official. PennDOT released its official scheduling change five days later, which was also published in The Herald.
“Whether or not to have a bridge worked on, that’s important stuff that needs to be discussed at a public meeting,” Melewsky advised. “It has a direct impact on the community.”
She further advised that the meetings raise “Sunshine Act compliance questions.”
Manross told The Herald that the reason he withdrew from the chamber’s Transportation Committee meetings was because those meetings often focused on issues that have “nothing to do with transportation.”
When asked if the TPPM conducts the same types of business as the Transportation Committee, Manross responded, “I don’t think so. Every one I go to, they complain about a pothole or something minor. To me, they’ve become minor things, and that’s not what the Transportation Committee was intended for. It turned into a complaint session.”
He said he’d “be happy to attend them if they actually accomplished something.”
Chamber Executive Director Emily Altomare, when asked about the situation by The Herald on March 10, said past Transportation Committee meetings led to such actions as the removal of the traffic light at the intersection of West Spruce and West Spring streets, as well as solving a problem of traffic congestion during the annual drive-through live nativity, at Grace Fellowship Church.
“Those are just a couple things,” Altomare noted.
Regarding Manross’ comments over the Transportation Committee devolving into “a complaint session,” Altomare said some things regularly brought up at the meetings are “just issues he doesn’t want to deal with. These are problems for the community.”
She said she “understands his frustrations,” but said the Transportation Committee meetings are not “just an opportunity to bug Larry.”
Altomare said she does not argue the need for the TPPM group, noting the Transportation Committee takes a regional approach as opposed to solely focusing on Titusville projects and initiatives, but said the chamber board was concerned about being barred from the TPPM meetings.
“People tend to feel uncomfortable, and it raises concerns when certain groups are excluded. I think people are just wanting to keep an eye on things.”
The Herald feels that it is in the community’s best interest that these meetings be opened to the public.