Does a locked door at a public meeting violate the Open Meetings law?
Only if the public is precluded from attendance, District Judge Edward Lewis of Jim Thorpe ruled in court Monday.
Matthew Schutter, chairman of the Penn Forest Township board of auditors, filed a complaint with Lewis against the township alleging the Sunshine Law was violated because the door was locked for the auditors' meeting.
Judge Lewis ruled against Schutter, not only because he couldn't prove anyone was prevented from attending the meeting, but also because to make it valid, the complaint would have to be filed against individuals and not the township in general.
The controversy arose from a meeting of the auditors at 2 p.m. on Jan. 7.
Schutter said the doors were locked when he arrived for the meeting and were still locked when township resident Ted York arrived a short while later.
The township has two sets of doors, one is open and leads to a window where secretaries are present; the second one leads to the meeting room. The second room is unlocked on evenings when the board of supervisors meets.
York and Schutter were the only two people to offer testimony at the hearing.
York said that after he was admitted to the meeting room, he overheard comments that he shouldn't be permitted to remain at the meeting.
On cross-examination by attorney Tom Nanovic, the township's solicitor, York agreed that nobody asked him to leave and that he was permitted to remain in attendance.
Schutter said when he arrived for the annual meeting, which was advertised, the doors to the meeting room were locked. He said the secretaries "buzzed" him into the meeting room.
"I felt the doors being locked was a violation of the Sunshine Law," Schutter said. "It was denying access to the public."
Nanovic pointed out that it was an auditors' meeting and Schutter is an auditor.
"Can you name anyone, to the court, who wanted to get in who didn't get in," Nanovic asked Schutter.
Nanovic asked Judge Lewis to dismiss all the charges because the wrong section of the Sunshine Law was apparently used by Schutter for the complaint, nobody was actually precluded from attending the meeting, and because the action was against the township and not against individuals.
"We do not know if there was anyone who could not attend the meeting," Schutter said. "The doors were locked. This was my very first meeting. I asked for the doors to be open."
He added, "I feel this is denying access to the public."
Judge Lewis said to Schutter, "You don't know if anyone was kept out of the meeting so we don't know if there was a violation."
After the hearing, Schutter said, "All public meetings are open that you can walk right in."
He admitted that he doesn't have a good working relationship with the township supervisors.
"I'm looking out for the rights of the public," Schutter said.
Schutter alleged that there is a $1.6 million shortfall in the budget and as an auditor he has a responsibility to check the books.
"Every time I try to question about the budget or the money, they call the cops on me," he said.
He said this happened on four occasions but he has not been arrested.