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MARIE GUY v. ROBERT B. WOODS (03/13/87)

COMMONWEALTH COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA


decided: March 13, 1987.

MARIE GUY, APPELLANT
v.
ROBERT B. WOODS, PRESIDENT OF COUNCIL; ET AL., APPELLEES

Appeal from the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County in the case of Marie Guy v. Robert B. Woods, President of Council, Clinton L. Childs, Jr., Vice-President of Council, Jean L. George, Councilman, James K. Maloney, Councilman, Louis M. Tarasi, Jr., Councilman, Charles E. Throne, Jr., Councilman, Richard E. White, Councilman, James R. Yanckello, Councilman, and Borough of Sewickley, No. GD 80-14935.

COUNSEL

Harlan S. Stone, Stone, Specter & Stone, for appellant.

Gary H. McQuone, Brucker & McQuone, for appellees.

President Judge Crumlish, Jr., Judge Doyle, and Senior Judge Kalish, sitting as a panel of three. Opinion by President Judge Crumlish, Jr.

Author: Crumlish

[ 104 Pa. Commw. Page 587]

Marie Guy appeals an Allegheny County Common Pleas Court order dismissing her amended petition for declaratory judgment. We affirm.

Guy, an elected member of the Sewickley Borough Council (Council) challenges the validity of Council's Rule of Government 2E,*fn1 which grants discretion to each Council committee chairman to close committee meetings to other non-committee Council members, borough officials and/or the public.

Guy complains that Rule 2E is unconstitutional and that the various committee chairmen have impermissibly excluded her from committee meetings where she is not a designated member, in violation of rights granted her by the First*fn2 and Fourteenth*fn3 Amendments to the United States Constitution, and those granted by the Constitution of this Commonwealth.*fn4 The common

[ 104 Pa. Commw. Page 588]

    pleas court found that the rule was within the Council's legitimate authority to establish rules for its own governance and that it was neither discriminatory nor violative of constitutional rights.

We note at the outset that the Commonwealth's Open Meeting Law,*fn5 commonly known as the Sunshine Act, under which the Council operated when Guy instituted her action, required prior publication and open public meetings only before formal action was taken. Rule 2E, which recognized this limitation, prohibited any vote or other formal action in committee sessions. By the Act of July 3, 1986 (Act 84), the General Assembly repealed the earlier Sunshine Act*fn6 and subjected committee deliberations of Commonwealth subdivisions to open meeting requirements.*fn7 This statute did not become effective until January 3, 1987, and we presume that the Council will hereafter comply with the statute. However, because Guy confines her appeal to constitutional challenges to Rule 2E, we shall proceed to address those issues.

First Amendment

Guy contends that Rule 2E is overbroad and thus violates her First Amendment right to free speech and association by operating to chill the exchange of political ideas and expression. The Council counters that the First Amendment does not guarantee an elected official's

[ 104 Pa. Commw. Page 589]

    right to be included in each and every proceeding of an elected body, particularly when in such proceedings committee members may not adopt policy or take formal action without the approval of the full Council. We agree with the Council's contention.

A statute which is vague or overbroad may be unconstitutional when it implicates First Amendment freedoms of speech or association. However, a statute is not overbroad merely because its application implicates protected activity. Veterans and Reservists for Peace in Vietnam v. Regional Commissioner of Customs, Region II, 459 F.2d 676 (3d Cir. 1972), cert. denied, 409 U.S. 933 (1972). If its restrictions on First Amendment freedoms are no greater than necessary to protect substantial government interests, then a statute's restrictions can be tolerated. Pirillo v. Takiff, 462 Pa. 511, 341 A.2d 896 (1975), reinstated, 466 Pa. 187, 352 A.2d 11 (1976), cert. denied, 423 U.S. 1083 (1976).

Because Rule 2E advances a legitimate government interest and restricts Guy's right to speak and associate in only limited circumstances, we find that it does not violate her First Amendment rights. A local government certainly has an interest (if not a duty) to ensure that its internal affairs are operated efficiently. This interest has long been served in government by the committee structure, which allows for the division of legislative labor.*fn8 The volume of work and time constraints on legislative calendars dictate that investigatory functions be given to subparts of the whole Council, where members may develop expertise and familiarity with particular subject matters.

[ 104 Pa. Commw. Page 590]

Furthermore, we see no less restrictive alternative -- and Guy points to none -- which would effect the local government's end. If Guy and all other members were included as of right in all committee deliberations, the Council would at all times be acting as a committee of the whole. We recognize that legislative matters requiring formal action by the entire Council may need preliminary informal discussion among its members who have been assigned to develop local legislation in particular subject areas.

Fourteenth Amendment

Guy also contends that Rule 2E establishes an arbitrary classification (committee members and non-committee members) and denies her equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Because fundamental*fn9 First Amendment rights to free speech and association are implicated by this classification, we must strictly scrutinize the Council's rule, San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1 (1973), to ensure that it is narrowly tailored to meet a compelling need. Police Department of Chicago v. Mosley, 408 U.S. 92 (1972).

We find that Rule 2E comports with the constitutional guarantees of equal protection of the laws. As we have noted, the classification arises from a compelling need for the smooth operation of governments at the local level as well as the need for candor among elected officials. Moreover, there is no blanket exclusion of non-committee members from committee sessions; the discretion

[ 104 Pa. Commw. Page 591]

    to close sessions of Council is narrowly limited to committee meetings where no formal action may be taken. The rule does not prohibit Guy's meeting with committee members at any time outside of the informal committee sessions.

Rule 2E is designed to foster free discussion in an atmosphere of informal cooperation and debate. We thus perceive no constitutional infirmity to compel us to grant Guy's petition for declaratory relief.

Affirmed.

Order

The Allegheny County Common Pleas Court order, No. GD 80-14935 dated May 8, 1985, is affirmed.

Disposition

Affirmed.


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