AP NEWS

Sunshine Act complicates Cambria County court policy

May 4, 2019

A new advanced registration requirement to record public meetings at the Cambria County Courthouse could conflict with the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act.

The provision at issue is item J of section 4 in an administrative order issued by Cambria County President Judge Norman A. Krumenacker III on Wednesday. This aspect of the new policy bars individuals from recording Cambria County commissioners meetings on the third floor of the courthouse unless they receive advance approval from the president commissioner.

“That provision is inconsistent with the requirements of the Sunshine Act, and it should be removed,” said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association in Harrisburg. “The General Assembly has guaranteed the public’s right to record public meetings, and the county commissioners and court cannot give ‘more’ permission.

“At most, the commissioners could impose a reasonable rule governing the use of recording devices like a requirement to use your own power source, but advanced registration and permission requirements would be unreasonable (interference) with the public’s statutorily guaranteed right to record public meetings.”

Karen Hogue, executive assistant to Krumenacker, said the new policy was designed primarily to ensure that people don’t bring unauthorized cellphones and other recording devices into courthouse. The county commissioners meetings are typically held on the third floor of the building in close proximity to a courtroom.

“All somebody has to do is call the commissioners and say, Hey I want to record a meeting,” Hogue said.

She added that the commissioners can opt to move their meeting place, and that the policy is still subject to changes.

“I think we’re going to give this six months and down the road see if we need to tweak anything,” Hogue said.

According to county solicitor William Gleason Barbin, Melewsky’s interpretation of the Sunshine Act seems to be accurate. Section 711 states that individuals attending the public meetings of government bodies shall have the right to use recording devices.

“There’s a little issue,” Barbin said. “Citizens are allowed to record public meetings.”

“It is absolute.”

He added that President Commissioner Tom Chernisky said he and his colleagues are looking at other options.

“(Chernisky) tells me that the tentative plan is to move the commissioners meetings to the basement, which would be exempt from the rule so that citizens still could still have their devices and make their recordings,” Barbin said.

“We’re going to work out some details, and we’ve got to make sure it’s set up right and make sure there are no conflicts between uses of the jury room in the basement, but that’s our plan to take care of that.”

He emphasized that the county commissioners did not help draft the policy.

“This is the court’s rule — not my rule, not the commissioners’ rule,” he said. “This is not a commissioners policy.”

The electronic device restrictions are limited to the second and third floors of the building, and certain professionals in the courthouse for business purposes are exempt from the ban. They are: current and senior judges, licensed attorneys, courthouse and county employees, credentialed members of the media, law enforcement officers, first responders, building and maintenance tradespeople, disabled individuals and those required by the court to wear an electronic monitoring device.

According to Krumenacker’s administrative order, court staff and security officers can confiscate and search cellphones and other electronic devices being used in violation of courthouse rules. Those found in violation of the policy may also be removed from the facility, lose their privilege to bring devices into the building and be fined $25.

The new policy is set to take effect June 1.