Taking seriously an important state law establishing the right of the public to be present when officials are doing the public’s business was thought to be a problem over the years. Especially when the top financial penalty for wrong-doing related to the PA Sunshine law was all of $100. Plus, the fine could be paid by the public body rather than the individual wrong-doers involved. No more.
In the midst of the 2011 state budget brawl, a little known proposal, Senate Bill 101, inched its way through the legislature with bipartisan support all the way to the governor’s desk for signing. PA’s Sunshine Law took on a little muscle. Reform should always be this easy.
The new provisions, set to take effect 60 days after enactment, increased the penalty to between $100 and $1,000 for a first offense and to between $500 and $2,000 for the the second offense. Just as importantly, the public body involved such as a county government, a township or school district, would no longer be able to cover the cost for transgressors. That is, the fine has to come out of their own pockets. It seems fair to say that the ante was just raised significantly for public officials wanting to do business in the shadows.
The law sailed through the legislative session with surprisingly little controversy or even notice, for that matter. Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and other reform organizations, had supported toughening the law for years, but proposals died on the vine. So why now?
“I think there was a growing recognition that the law was not working the way it was supposed to,” said Common Cause Executive Director Barry Kauffman. “With many years in effect, there very few prosecutions and even fewer convictions. District Attorneys have pretty busy operations and they’re not likely to chase down violators for $100 fines, especially when the people they’re going after might be part of the good old boy system. With the new penalties, there are fewer reasons not to go after them.” Kauffman added that he expects the law to be taken more seriously in the future.
As for the quiet legislative path of the bill: “We knew the bill was there; we saw it; we liked it.” Kauffman called its passage “a pleasant surprise.”