Closed-door meeting to discuss Port Matilda EMS funding may have violated Sunshine Act

A quorum of the Upper Bald Eagle/Halfmoon Council of Governments recently met in a private meeting that wasn’t advertised or open to the public to discuss a funding formula for the Port Matilda EMS — a potential violation of the state Sunshine Act.

The COG, which consists of the Port Matilda Borough and Halfmoon, Huston, Taylor and Worth townships, regularly meets at 7 p.m. the first Tuesday of the month at the Port Matilda fire hall.

In November 2022, the Port Matilda EMS announced its plan to close within three months. Days after that announcement, the EMS company posted on Facebook that it was “holding off on formal notification of our intent to close for a few weeks while we investigate all possible avenues.”

In the months since, the municipalities have been trying to come up with a way to help. In January, the COG voted to create an “EMS funding subcommittee” to work on a solution to the funding. They held their first meeting on March 1, but it wasn’t an advertised, public meeting, chair Keith Reese said during the regular meeting on March 7.

“That was not a public meeting. It was not advertised, just so you know, it was just the initial organization and the five members aren’t the same five members that are sitting here,” he said during the meeting.

The subcommittee members are Bernard Kalt (Port Matilda borough), Timothy Reese (Taylor Township), Ron Servello (Halfmoon Township), Keith Reese (Worth Township) and Karen Dillon-Ballock (Huston Township).

The only difference between the COG and the subcommittee is one person — the Port Matilda representative — so there was a quorum of the COG deliberating during a closed and unadvertised meeting.

When the Centre Daily Times asked about the quorum, Keith Reese again said it wasn’t the same group.

“It’s not the same group. They have no voting authority. It’s a work session just like … any township officials or school boards holding a work session. We have no voting capability whatsoever. No decisions will be made,” he said.

A resident asked if the meeting was an organizational meeting.

“Call it what you want. It was a subcommittee meeting, work session,” Keith Reese said.

Melissa Bevan Melewsky, media law counsel for the PA NewsMedia Association, of which the CDT is a member, said the Sunshine Act applies to committees that render advice or take official action on matters of agency business.

“The law applies to deliberation, even if no official action takes place, so the fact that no decisions were made is irrelevant. If there was a quorum of the committee or a quorum of the COG discussing agency business, the Sunshine Act applied and required a public meeting,” Melewsky said in an email.

She said the Sunshine Act does not define or authorize “work sessions,” so the term used to describe the meeting is “largely irrelevant.”

“What matters is: Is there a quorum and is the quorum discussing agency business. If the answer to those questions is yes, the Sunshine Act applies. That applies to work sessions, lunch meetings, emails, text messages, phone calls, non-voting meetings, etc.,” she wrote.

The Sunshine Act, which requires agencies to deliberate and take official action on agency business in an open and public meeting, among other things, does allow for executive sessions. Section 708 of the act lists seven reasons why an agency can hold an executive session, but the funding of the EMS would not fall under any of the reasons. The COG did not say they met in an executive session for the matter, either.

What happened during the meeting?

Halfmoon Township Supervisor Ron Servello gave a report of what they discussed during the closed-door meeting, which included concepts of funding models. The subcommittee looked at distribution, weighting of factors, and organizational structure, like whether they could have a treasurer, if the EMS is interested in that.

The formula they looked at, Keith Reese said, includes things beyond population and per capita.

“There are other factors in this hybrid formula. It would be a much better overall, encompassing formula than just saying one or the other,” he said.

Servello said other things under consideration are population, households and income/poverty levels. He wants to look into the funding formula that the Centre Region COG uses and possibly pull from that.

“We have some work to do, as far as distributions,” Servello said.

The weighting options would affect the distributions among the municipalities, he said. It will require some compromise and negotiations among the municipalities to adopt whatever formula they decide on, but it is all based on a budget projection, he said.

“I don’t think for 2023 we can talk about having a formal, firm budget,” Servello said. “They’ll need money to operate. They’re operating now but on a shoestring in terms of number of people. So they need money to operate. We need to get to the next step and that is, what does an annual budget look like in the future?”

When the municipalities begin to plan for their 2024 budgets, the funding formula that they settle on will determine what percent each municipality contributes.

At the last meeting, Keith Reese said a second committee meeting had not yet been scheduled but that it will not be a public meeting. It will only be public when the COG votes on the recommendations. If the committee holds another closed, unadvertised meeting, it would be another potential Sunshine Act violation.