"What's black and white and read all over?"

Saturday, May 27, 2006
Posted 8:54 PM by

An interesting point of view

Bernie O'Hare, a title searcher and fellow blogger, believes Beaver County is doing the right thing by balancing its need for open records with the unwritten right to privacy.Got an interesting e-mail today about my posts on Beaver County altering its online property tax database from fellow blogger Bernie O'Hare, who publishes Lehigh Valley Ramblings.

In the real world, O'Hare searches title abstracts for a living. It's kind of an arcane but still necessary research job whenever a property changes hands. It also means he deals with these records every day. He forwarded me a copy of an e-mail he sent to Northampton County on May 9 about its online database, which has since been modified to remove its search by name function.

Beaver County President Judge Robert Kunselman, citing safety concerns, ordered the county last month to remove the names of all judges from its public property tax records. The county commissioners have proposed a compromise by which they will make it impossible to search the online database by name, but will litigate the case in Commonwealth Court if it's necessary.

O'Hare raised a similar issue this month in an e-mail he sent to Jean Mateff, Northampton County's Director of Fiscal Affairs.

"On May 2, 2005, the Commonwealth Court decided Tribune-Review Publishing Co v. Bodack.

Northampton County has removed the ability of users to search its online property tax database by a property owner's name."The Court ruled, in response to a newspaper's request for production of cell phone bills from city council, that the telephone numbers of private citizens must be redacted. Now what does this have to do with you? Let me explain.

"The court reasoned that private citizens have a legitimate and reasonable expectation that their phone numbers remain private and that disclosure would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy outweighing any public benefit to be gained from disclosure. The Court also expressed concern that publishing a private citizen's phone number could result in identity theft.

"Based upon this reasoning, I think it may be necessary to reduce the amount of information made available at It is one thing to make a trip to the courthouse to examine these records, but it is quite another to publish this information on line for the entire world to see.

"I don't think it is necessary or appropriate to furnish the world with photos of the homes of the citizens who pay taxes, or to provide a sketch showing how each room is laid out. If publication of a phone number imperils a reasonable expectation of privacy, then publication of a blueprint and home photo is even more damaging.

"I do not mean to suggest that assessment records are not public records, available for inspection at the courthouse to a person willing to make the trip. But I do mean to suggest that publication of this information on the Internet is an invitation to stalkers, data miners, and identity thieves. It appears that the Commonwealth Court, based upon its reasoning in Bodak, could conclude that such publication constitutes a violation of a citizen's right to privacy.

"I realize the county's decision to publish this information is motivated by a desire to make assessments known to the real estate community in a manner that will make trips to the courthouse unnecessary, but convenience should not be the basis for violating the privacy rights of the citizenry.

"Perhaps you may wish to review this matter with the county solicitor."

Openness and Sunshine is the only defense against government abuses like the National Security Administration's unlawful collecting of domestic phone records in a database, which is being made available to Bush administration officials to track reporters.Here's my reply to Bernie: "I'm familiar with the case and I agree with you to some degree. I think there's always a fine balancing act between the public's right to know and the need to protect privacy. My training has taught me that when in doubt, lean toward openness and light because government cannot be trusted when it does business in the dark. Just look at the mess our federal government is now in - NSA sifting domestic phone records, when it's chartered like the CIA, only for foreign spying."


Friday, May 26, 2006
Posted 4:58 PM by

Beaver County may hamper online access to public tax records

Beaver County President Judge Robert Kunselman originally cited the murder of Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes (pictured here) near Atlanta last year as one of the reason he's fearful of public records, but Barnes was killed in his own courtroom.Despite Beaver County President Judge Robert Kunselman's specious argument that public tax records were putting local judges in jeopardy, the county commissioners proposed a deal to placate him this week.

Rather than fight in Commonwealth Court for their right to keep the tax records in full public view, the commissioners are considering removing the public's ability to search a five-year-old online database by a property's owners name.

"If we can't (agree), then it would be our intent to litigate it," Commissioners Chairman Dan Donatella told the Beaver County Times. "We feel very strongly about that."

Here's hoping for a court fight, because as Teri Henning, an attorney with the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, told the newspaper, "It's putting those people in a different circumstance ... for no reason as far as I can tell."

Kunselman's daughter-in-law, Judge Deborah Kunselman said she would speak with her colleagues about the proposal. But it was apparently enough to cause Robert Kunselman to withdraw his April 24 court order requiring the removal of all judge's property records from public view, writing the commissioners "should be free to make such a decision without coercion and with due deliberation."

The judge wasn't nearly so accomodating last month when he issued the bench order, citing the Chicago slayings of the husband and mother of U.S. District Judge Jane Lefkow as the reason.

Although Lefkow's home address was posted on the Internet by the follower of a white supremacist, the murders were actually committed by a plaintiff in a medical malpractice case the judge had dismissed. The man, who later committed suicide, used a GPS system to find the house.

Under the compromise the commissioners propose, even if the name-search field option is removed, the names of judges could still be found through searches, but only if the user already knows the property's parcel number or address.

However, it would also somewhat limit the ability of most property owners to compare their taxable valuables to those of their neighbors without doing additional research.

Anyone who enters a courthouse is already treated as if they're a dangerous criminal and now officials are considering limiting access to public records - all in the name of security.The proposal would not affect the assessment office's public-access terminals in the courthouse, which would maintain a name-search function, or a compact disc of properties sold by the office every month.

"What it's doing is negatively affecting people who can't get to the courthouse during business hours," Henning said.


Thursday, May 25, 2006
Posted 11:09 PM by

Rally for Pa. legislative reform forgot its roots

My only critism of a united legislative reform rally held in Harrisburg today was that its complete agenda wasn't posted on the Internet for the rest of Pennsylvania to read.I think it's great that groups from both sides of the aisle showed up in Harrisburg this morning to shout in a single voice for legislative change.

Lord knows, I've found myself in some spirited e-mail conversations with Young Conservatives of Pennsylvania member and founder Chris Lilik and Lincoln Institute CEO Lowman Henry.

Both could be categorized as hardline Republican conservatives.

If you haven't guessed yet, I'm a progressive, dyed-in-the-wool yet fiscally-conservative liberal Democrat (for lack of a better party). The kind of jerk who would have stood on a soap box in a park during the Great Depression.

Accordingly, I'm an equal-opportunity offender. I really don't care if a politician is a Democrat or a Republican. If they're doing something stupid or wasting the taxpayers' money, I'll blast 'em.

The one thing we all agree on, though, is that Pennsylvania's Legislature is badly broken and needs serious surgery.

Or as Henry put it recently, "ethics and the structure of good government is not an ideological, or even a partisan issue. The pay raise and the reform agenda have united a wide array of groups from across the political spectrum. This is because we are all, universally, getting screwed by the fact our state government has been hijacked. There should be fair, free, and above board debate and decision making. Then we can all advance our arguments and whoever wins on a given issue wins."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

A ban on lobbyist's gifts may be shooting high. I'd like at least a real disclosure for them since they outnumber legislators - 800 to 253 and spent $125 million last year.I'm glad to see these organizations unite as one and rally for reform in front of the TV cameras and newspaper reporters at the Capitol - even if the Legislature isn't in session for another couple weeks. At least it keeps the movement alive at a time when some might just claim victory - with at least 16 incumbents ousted - and pack it in.

But I do have one gripe: None of the Web sites that helped fuel this great movement (, Common Cause Pa.,,, etc...) actually took the time today to post their "Roadmap for Reform" on the Internet.

Folks, take a lesson from your recent past and remember that not everybody can make it to the Capitol on a moment's notice.

Without the benefit of the specifics and only some newspaper articles to go by, I can say the combined reform goals include: a provision to make monthly legislative expense reports available on the Internet, a ban on lobbying gifts, a prohibition on fundraisers while the Legislature is in session, a constitutional amendment to prevent post-election sessions, and a constitutional convention to address wide-ranging legislative reforms.

I can only hope this blog, based on a more than a dozen years of newspaper reporting, has helped influence that agenda at least in some small way.

And if a constitutional convention does happen, count me in.

Below you will find links to my own, rather modest, reform platform:

My approach would be to be make even the most under-handed of cash exchanges public knowledge. That way the public would finally have enough information to make logical decisions at the polls on election day.MAY 21: SUNSHINE


Wednesday, May 24, 2006
Posted 11:12 PM by

Pa. judges want double standard for themselves

The judges want off the publicly-viewable property tax rolls, citing the case of a federal judge whose husband and mother were killed last year. But she blames the slayings more on the inflamatory rhetoric of Pat Robertson and Congressmen, than the availability of public information online.

Beaver County President Judge Robert Kunselman ordered his name and those of other judges off the county tax rolls last month, claiming it was a security risk. The commissioners are appealing to Commonwealth Court.Beaver County's commissioners have appealed a judge's order stripping his name and those of other judges from all public records in the county's assessment office - including its online property tax database.

County President Judge Robert Kunselman ordered the records removal on April 24, citing safety concerns following attacks on two U.S. judges last year. He said he issued the bench order after the county commissioners ignored his request last summer to have the records removed.

However, Myron Sainovich, the county's solicitor, couldn't find any state law to support the judge's order. "You control your county assessor," Sainovich told the commissioners on April 26. "It's my belief he doesn't have the authority."

Kunselman insists he does, saying "I'm my own authority as far as I'm concerned. If they want to do something about it, they can do something."

On Tuesday, the commisioners did. Sainovich filed the appeal in Commonwealth Court, the Beaver County Times reported today.

Commissioners Chairman Dan Donatella said the appeal protects the county's rights while officials try to resolve the matter. "We have no choice but to do that."

It was the right move, even though Allegheny County similarly removed 100 property records - the names of all federal, state and county judges - from its online database last year following a request from Chief U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose.

But that order covered only the Web site and was issued by Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato, who has the power to order it - not a county judge, Sainovich said.

Under Allegheny County's new policy, judges' property records are still available by request at the county property assessment office. But that didn't stop first ammendment advocates and even other county officials from criticizing the move.

"I think it's a slippery slope," former county Chief Executive Jim Roddey, who approved the policy of listing names and addresses along with real estate information on the Web site, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "You start with the judges, and then why not take off the police, FBI agents" or other groups?

Roddey said there was no indication that the recent violence against judges was related to public records containing their addresses.

As proof they're in danger, Kunselman and Ambrose have cited the murder of Fulton County Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes near Atlanta and the slayings of U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow's husband and mother at her Chicago home.

However, Barnes was shot on March 11, 2005 in his own courtroom. Brian Nichols, 33, a jailed defendant in a rape trial, allegedly overpowered his escort into court and used the guard's gun to fatally shoot Barnes, a sheriff's deputy and a federal agent.

Lefkow's case is more complex.

Although white supremacists were targeting her, U.S. District Court Judge Joan Lefkow's husband and mother were actually killed a plaintiff in a medical malpractice case she dismissed. He found her home using a GPS device.She found her husband and mother shot dead in the basement of her home on Feb. 28, 2005, less than a year after white supremacist Matthew Hale was convicted of trying to have her murdered for holding him in contempt of court, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Security at Lefkow's home - including a camera mounted outside the home and guards posted on the block in unmarked cars - had been beefed up after the allegations against Hale emerged in January 2003. But neighbors said the extra measures tailed off about the time Hale was convicted in April 2004.

After the killings, New Jersey-based Hal Turner, who conducts a daily broadcast of fiercely anti-immigrant, anti-Jewish and anti-federal commentary via short-wave radio and the Internet, blamed three other judges he called "the real villains" in the Hale case and asked his followers for "Home addresses. Background and biographical info. Photos. Voting records, property ownership records. Info. about any skeletons in their closets. You know, the whole nine-yards. The full monty."

Lefkow's home address had been posted on the Internet by a member of Hale's group. However, it wasn't a white supremacist who killed Lefkow's family members.

Bart Ross, a plaintiff in a medical malpractice case Lefkow dismissed, admitted to the murders in a suicide note before shooting himself in the head.

Police later found a global positioning system (GPS) device, which Ross used to locate Lefkow's home, in his van.

On May 18, 2005, Lefkow testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, "I urge your support for legislation that prohibits the posting of personal information about judges and other public officials on the Internet without written consent."

However, she also noted, "As a matter of fact, our home address was posted by the state board of elections in connection with my husband's candidacy for a local judgeship. A small fee of $20 will give anyone who wants it access to social security numbers, loans, land transactions, the names of neighbors, and so forth. Although it may never be stopped entirely, limits on commercial trafficking in such information is, I believe, feasible and essential."

Those comments were more of a sidebar, though.

They were wedged in between her request for $12 million more federal funding to protect judges, and her urging senators to "publicly and persistently repudiate gratuitous attacks on the judiciary such as the recent statement of Pat Robertson on national television and, unfortunately, of some members of the Congress, albeit in more measured terms."

Nevertheless, judges like Kunselman, Ambrose and others across the nation have seized on only that one portion of Lefkow's words and used them as leverage to get their names removed from public records.

The Chicago Election Board has reportedly drafted a measure to protect the voter registration records of the Illinois' judges and let them vote by absentee ballot - similar to a 2000 law that allows victims of domestic violence to enroll in an address confidentiality program.

There's also a bill in the Illinois Legislature that would let judges carry concealed weapons.

A bill in the Idaho state Legislature was introduced in February to "exempt judges' addresses, telephone numbers and other information concerning their residences from public disclosure. It would continue to permit access to county recorders' records by those having a professional need to view such documents, including title insurers and escrow agents, and would also allow persons who are parties to instruments to have access to those instruments."

No similar measure is pending in Pennsylvania's Legislature. However, the state Supreme Court heard testimony two weeks ago on a proposal to cloak the names of jurors.

Delaware officials asked a federal appeals court two weeks ago to let them keep public records beyond the reach of nonresidents.

None of this would have helped William Berkeyheiser, of Upper Makefield, Bucks County, who was shot to death in March 2005 by Stanford Douglas Jr., 30, of Philadelphia.

The mentally ill admitted killer said he was angry with Berkeyheiser over a joke the older man supposedly told in his presence in 1998 while they were co-workers. He refused to tell police the joke, but did say that he tracked Berkeyheiser with information he obtained by paying $150 to A-Plus Investigations of Burlington, N.J. He tried other private investigation firms, but begged off when they started asking why he wanted the information.

Viola Berkeyheiser, the victim's widow, is now suing the private investigation firm in Bucks County court for "aiding and abetting" her husband's murderer. Leaders in the PI industry from as far away as Las Vegas have read stories about the lawsuit and are so outraged by A-Plus's conduct that they have called her lawyer and volunteered their services.

One final note. U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, cited Lefkow's comments in his opening statement at the nomination hearing for Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. on Sept. 13.

If the public records of judges are removed, why not the police or politicians?"Judge Lefkow said that the murders of her family members were 'a direct result of a decision made in the course of fulfilling our duty to do justice without fear or favor,' Durbin said. "In my view, that is the only proper test for a Supreme Court Justice."

Or any judge.


Tuesday, May 23, 2006
Posted 8:35 PM by

We still don't know

One week after the primary, the 11 different systems employed by Pennsylvania's counties have yielded many questions.One week after Pennsylvanians went to the polls we still don't know who won five primary races for the state Legislature.

We also don't know why the state Supreme Court ordered every county in the state to switch to new electronic voting machines on March 2 - just two months before the election.

I can tell you who lost, though.

Taxpayers and voters lost their right to decide whether the cost of new voting machines was worth it.

The Supreme Court decision cost the state's 67 counties millions of dollars. The high court promised an opinion justifying its decree would "follow."

But so far no opinion has been posted online to explain why the justices required the switch without first asking voters about it in a referendum on the old machines as the state Constitution requires.

I thought there might be a mistake, so I called the Supreme Court's office in Philly this morning. A clerk there said that I'd have to call the Harrisburg office, where the case file was being kept.

So much for the court's idea of a unified judicial system.

A clerk in Harrisburg said, "I can't say it's unusual it (the opinion) hasn't come down yet. I'll double-check to make sure something hasn't gotten lost."

Lost? Excuse me?

If this isn't a bureaucratic blunder, then it's the height of judicial arrogance.

It wasn't the justices' place to dictate how we vote. That job is supposed to be left up to the voters and their elected leaders.

But with the state facing the potential loss of nearly $100 million in grants for failing to meet a federal deadline for changing systems, the court ignored the constitutional requirement and the facts of a Westmoreland County case, reversed a well-reasoned Commonwealth Court ruling and simply ordered the change without presenting any legal justification.

The federal grant money came from the $500 million Help America Vote Act, which Congress passed in 2002 after the Florida hanging-chad fiasco of the 2000 presidential election. The law prohibited the use of punch-card and lever-style voting machines.

Did the state Supreme Court violate the state Constitution by ordering a change from mechanical voting machines to electronic ones throughout Pennsylvania without putting the change to voters in a referendum?The state and counties applied for the grants, but most counties ignored the law's requirements until it was almost too late and the state Supreme Court ordered the change.

Bucks County, where I live, was the lone county not to make the switch in time. Now its commissioners face the prospect of losing $1 million in federal grant money and still being required to buy the new machines under a state Supreme Court order taxpayers have yet to see.

The rest of the counties hastily bought the new machines. Issues of price, compatability and even security suddenly went out the window as election boards hurried to have the machines in place for the primary.

In the end, the counties purchased 11 different systems, many of which cannot talk to each other or relay their results electronically to Harrisburg - opening up the possibility of human error.

Sixteen counties purchased the Diebold TSX electronic touchscreen system, which had a serious security flaw. A computer expert with physical access to the ATM-like machine could, in theory, change its software with relative ease and potentially alter election results.

More than 220 machines in Philadelphia and Allegheny County failed to produce "zero-count" printouts last Tuesday which are supposed to confirm there were no votes registered in the machines.

Allegheny County officials are still counting the official vote tallies there, with the fate of three state House of Representative seats hanging in the balance, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported today.

Ditto in Philly, where the Democratic primary for the 179th state House district still is not over, but the lead changed hands yesterday during a count of write-in votes, according to today's Philadelphia Inquirer.

In Luzerne County, the official returns have reduced the total ballots cast by more than 10 percent of the unofficial election night tally, the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader reported today.

Tabulation errors changed the outcome in the Republican primary for the 118th state House District. The vote total for Arthur Bobbouine, Luzerne County chief deputy sheriff, dropped from 856 to 807, which put him behind Maureen Tatu, of Chestnuthill Township in Monroe County. Her vote total also dropped, but only from 836 to 818.

"It just doesn't make any sense," said Bobbouine, who is planning to challenge the new totals and wants a manual recount.

For a larger look at the different voting systems employed throughout Pennsylvania click on this map.Political consultant Bob Caruso, who watched Friday's 14-hour official vote count, said he couldn't explain the discrepancy. "I still don’t know what happened on Friday. My brain is still mush."

If that's truly the case, he should consider running for the state Supreme Court the next time a seat on the bench becomes vacant. He'd fit right in.


Monday, May 22, 2006
Posted 9:39 PM by

Pa. pay raise suit a 'slam dunk,' Common Cause official says

Barry Kauffmann, executive director of Common Cause, predicted at least a partial victory Monday in his group's federal lawsuit against the state's top officials over last year's legislative pay raise.While one of the plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit against Pennsylvania's top leaders expressed doubt of its success last week, the head of a good government group predicted at least a partial victory Monday.

"If the case is decided strictly on the facts, it's a slam dunk for us," Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause of Pennsylvania, said Monday. "This case cuts right to the heart of the power structure of Pennsylvania."

At 2 a.m. on July 7, the Legislature adopted a pay raise without public notice or debate for its members, all judges in the state and members of the executive branch. A day later, Gov. Ed Rendell signed it into law and praised the help of chief state Supreme Court justice Ralph Cappy in drafting the measure.

In October, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, Tim Potts of Democracy Rising PA, and state Rep. Greg Vitali sued the Commonwealth, Rendell, Cappy and the state's top legislative leaders, alleging the Legislature violated both the state and federal constitutions by bypassing proper procedure to pass the pay hike.

After public outrage over the raises mounted, the Legislature repealed the pay hikes on Nov. 16. Some lawmakers took their raises early, though, through "unvouchered expenses" and were not required to pay them back, and the salary increases still counted for calculating the legislators' pensions.

But Common Cause isn't suing over the money so much as the method the lawmakers used to ignore the Constitutionally-mandated three day public airing of a bill before it gets brought to the floor for a vote, as well as collusion between the state Supreme Court and the Legislature.

If you haven't read the federal lawsuit, it's a sarcastically-worded hoot. At one point, it compares the effect state Constitutonal requirements have on legislative leaders to "light on a gaggle of vampires at dawns break."

According to the suit, Cappy allegedly forced a Senate-House conference committee to agree to the pay raise, in part because several lawsuits were pending before the state Supreme Court questioning the Constitutionality of previously passed laws.

In short, the Legislature has created its own Catch-22. By passing laws unconstitutionally, the lawmakers risk having them overturned by the state Supreme Court and must do whatever the justices wanted.

To get the pay hike passed, a 24-line bill, H.B. 1521, which was supposed to prohibit any member of the executive branch or any board from receiving compensation greater than that paid to the governor, was gutted and replaced with 22-pages detailing the pay hike after the original bill was voted upon once and passed by both the House and the Senate.

The amended bill was then brought to the floor of the House and Senate for a second vote, this time under a provision that barred all but six lawmakers involved in the joint conference from further amending it.

The pay raise "became law literally in the dead of night, with no public warning and practically no public discussion, certainly not the public and legislative debate mandated by the Pennsylvania Constitution," the lawsuit says.

This isn't the first time legislative leaders used such a ploy to pass a potentially politically unpalatable law. In 2004, a two-paragraph bill requiring background checks for harness racing track employees was similarly gutted and replaced with a 146-page law that legalized slot machines in Pennsylvania.

"I think they're terrified of us getting discovery and swearing people in under oath."

- Barry Kauffman
Executive Director
Common Cause of Pa.

Common Cause's suit alleges the Legislature has taken similar tacts with budgets over the years. It also claims Supreme Court justices have been "blackmailing" the Legislature since 1998 with a court order requiring the state to pay all judiciary expenses.

As proof, the lawsuit includes affidavits from former state Rep. Edward Krebs and two other legislators who refused to be named unless called to testify.

"I think they're terrified of us getting discovery and swearing people in under oath," Kauffman said today.

That's why at a hearing Friday attended only by lawyers, some of the officials involved and reporters for both the Associated Press reporter and the Capitolwire private news service, the defendants claimed Common Cause and the League of Women Voters are "shadowy organizations."

Just for the record, Common Cause is nonpartisan group advocating good government. It has more than 10,000 members statewide, including myself. The League of Women Voters is a non-partisan, non-profit group with 40 chapters throughout the state that encourage citizen participation in government.

"They tried to make the case that we don't have standing," Kauffman said.

U.S. District Judge Yvette Kane said she would decide on multiple motions to dismiss the case with prejudice within three weeks.

"We're pretty confident," Kauffman said. "By and large, this case is going to go forward. Almost everything we have contended is in the public record. There are clear violations of the state constituton and a clear connection to violations of the federal constitution."

"Based on these sworn affidavits, plaintiffs believe discovery will establish a decade-long struggle by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to coerce state funding whereby one or more justices of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and leaders of the General Assembly negotiated legislation desired by the Court in exchange for rulings favorable to the legislative leadership on cases then pending before the Court challenging the constitutionality of the process by which important legislation was consistently enacted in secret...."

- Federal lawsuit
His comments were in contrast to Tim Potts, co-founder of the anti-pay raise group Democracy Rising PA, who said Saturday, "The case was always a long shot."

Not in Kauffman's eyes. He's been working on it since 1998 and said he had to get the approval of his group's state chapter and national officials before filing it.

"The information we're using is right from Justice Cappy's own mouth," Kauffman said. "We're saying this is a violation of federal rights. You can't have the person who is supposed to rule on a piece of legislation be involved in the drafting and passing the legislation."

He also said no matter what Kane decides, "Whatever side loses will appeal."

One final note, the pay raise may have been in the work since the falll of 2004 before it was finally forced to the floor early on July 7, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported Monday.

On Nov. 20, 2004, Republicans complained the governor had reneged on a promise to sign off on the pay raise - a fight that degenerated into an ugly confrontation in Rendell's office, during which Senate President Pro Tempore Jubelirer angrily shoved his finger at the governor and cursed at him, accusing him of being a liar.

Both Jubelirer and Senate Majority David Brightbill lost their seats in last Tuesday's primary primarily because of the pay raise issue.

Both were named in Common Cause's lawsuit as defendants because they were on the Senate-House conference committee that forced the pay raise issue to a vote.

Kauffman said he saw no reason to drop either legislator from the suit simply because they will be leaving office. "They were still the people involved in the situation."


Sunday, May 21, 2006
Posted 10:49 PM by

True reform starts with Sunshine

It's been 20 years since the state's Sunshine Law was written and granted an exclusion to the state Legislature for caucuses. It's time to close that loophole.Whenever I clean the house I always make sure to draw up the blinds and open the window to let a fresh breeze and some sun in.

I advise the Pennsylvania Legislature to do the same after reading "Shockwave shatters Pa. politics" in today's Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

The article traces the roots of last year's legislative pay raise to two "brutal" midnight caucus meetings following the passage of the 2006 budget.

Instead of adjourning in the early morning of July 7, tired lawmakers were called into the secret sessions by their party leaders who told them of the secret bipartisan plan to pass the pay increase.

Democrats and Republicans told the newspaper tempers flared, voices were raised. In the House Democratic Caucus, leaders warned that those who voted against it would be stripped of leadership positions.

"In the closed-door GOP caucus meeting, Rep Elinor Taylor of Chester County, the caucus chairwoman, presided," the article says. "It was loud and contentious. Only three lawmakers stood and objected - Rep. Paul Clymer of Bucks County, Rep. Mike Turzai of McCandless and Rep. Bob Bastian of Somerset. There were warnings not to criticize the pay raise."

At 2 a.m., the measure the House approved the pay hike 119-79. In the Senate, it passed 27-23.

This is not the way our government is supposed to work in Pennsylvania, where the state's Open Meetings or Sunshine Law turns 20 this year.

With a few exceptions, it dictates that the public's business should be conducted at a public meeting in every municipality, county and school district in the Commonwealth.

Everywhere, that is, except in the state Legislature, which wrote the law.

In 1986 legislators wrote, "The General Assembly finds that the right of the public to be present at all meetings of agencies and to witness the deliberation, policy formulation and decision making of agencies is vital to the enhancement and proper functioning of the democratic process and that secrecy in public affairs undermines the faith of the public in government and the public's effectiveness in fulfilling its role in a democratic society."

However, they also added these two definitions into the law:

"Agency. The body, and all committees thereof authorized by the body to take official action or render advice on matters of agency business, of all the following: the General Assembly, the executive branch of the government of this Commonwealth, including the Governor's Cabinet when meeting on official policymaking business, any board, council, authority or commission of the Commonwealth or of any political subdivision of the Commonwealth or any State, municipal, township or school authority, school board, school governing body, commission, the boards of trustees of all State-aided colleges and universities, the councils of trustees of all State-owned colleges and universities, the boards of trustees of all State-related universities and all community colleges or similar organizations created by or pursuant to a statute which declares in substance that the organization performs, or has for its purpose the performance of, an essential governmental function and through the joint action of its members exercises governmental authority and takes official action. The term does not include a caucus or a meeting of an ethics committee created under rules of the Senate or House of Representatives.

"Caucus. A gathering of members of a political party or coalition which is held for purposes of planning political strategy and holding discussions designed to prepare the members for taking official action in the General Assembly."

It's been 20 years and now we know that the caucus is the place where legislative leaders cut their secret deals, threaten and cajole our state lawmakers like bullies in a schoolyard.

If the historical primary defeat of state Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer and Senate Major Leader David Brightbill has taught us anything, it is that even bullies can get their comeuppance.

It's time to end their tyranny for good.

It's time to let the sun shine into the dark corridors of the Capitol. If the light is strong enough even the cockroaches who prefer to do their work in the dark will have to find somewhere else to infest.

As I wrote last month in my "Top 10 ways to improve Pa. today," stripping the word "caucus" from the definition of an agency in the Sunshine Law should be the top priority of anyone interested in reform.


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