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When an Email Chain Should Have Been a Public Meeting, Laws Could Have Been Broken

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, July 21 2011

Prosecutors in Burlington County, Penn. are investigating if an email thread among public officials about a development project proposed by "a politically connected insurance firm" violated public records laws, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports:

Robert Bernardi, the county's top law enforcement official, is trying to determine whether the private chat among the mayor, Township Council members, town manager, clerk, and solicitor via smartphones and laptops was a discussion that should have been aired at a public meeting. If so, officials could be charged with violating the Open Public Meetings Act, also known as the Sunshine Law.

The emails pertain to tension between the town council and the town planning board, which was under pressure from residents to act against the project, the Inquirer reports. Town officials went back and forth via email about opinions and what to do — which may have been a violation of public meetings laws. Such laws often require that any time a certain number of public officials are putting their heads together, it needs to be in a public meeting. But these laws were largely written to defend against deals done over lunches at local diners and in the classic smoke-filled rooms — they largely don't account for what to do about BlackBerrys and iPads. Across the country, cities and towns have been trying to figure out how to deal with the fact that a quorum of their town councils can reach a consensus from their iPhones and Blackberrys at any time — possibly outside of public view.