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Trib Total Media, Inc. v. Highlands School Dist.

August 5, 2010

TRIB TOTAL MEDIA, INC., APPELLANT
v.
HIGHLANDS SCHOOL DISTRICT



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge McCULLOUGH

Argued: April 19, 2010

BEFORE: HONORABLE BERNARD L. McGINLEY, Judge, HONORABLE PATRICIA A. McCULLOUGH, Judge, HONORABLE JIM FLAHERTY, Senior Judge.

OPINION

Trib Total Media, Inc. (TTM) appeals from the August 6, 2009, order of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County (trial court), which granted Highlands School District's (District) motion for judgment on the pleadings and dismissed TTM's complaint with prejudice. The question before us is one of first impression: whether the Highlands School Board (Board) violated the Sunshine Act, 65 Pa. C.S. §§701-716, by inviting local business owners to participate in an executive session for litigation purposes to discuss a property tax assessment appeal?*fn1

TTM is a Pennsylvania corporation that owns a number of newspapers, including The Valley News Dispatch (the Newspaper), a daily newspaper of general circulation in the Allegheny River Valley. The District is a school district located in the geographic region covered by the Newspaper.

The Board held a regular public meeting on June 8, 2009. At the conclusion of the meeting, the Board announced it would meet in executive session to discuss litigation. The Board invited the owners and representatives of the Heights Shopping Plaza (Shopping Center) to participate in the executive session to discuss possible litigation related to the Shopping Center's tax assessment appeal. The Board members, the School District's solicitor, and representatives of the Shopping Center attended the closed session. However, the Newspaper's reporter was denied access to the meeting.

On June 10, 2009, TTM filed a complaint against the District, seeking a declaratory judgment that the District violated the Sunshine Act and a permanent injunction to force the District to comply with the Sunshine Act in the future. TTM averred, in pertinent part, as follows:

5. On June 8, 2009, after the conclusion of a public meeting, the Highlands School Board met in private with the owners of the . Shopping Center to discuss a possible tax assessment appeal by the owners.

6. A reporter for the [Newspaper] was present for the public meeting but was denied access to the private meeting.

7. The meeting with the owners of the . Shopping Center was closed to the press and the public.

8. Highlands discussed and deliberated on school district business at the meeting.

9. The meeting was not a lawful executive session or any other meeting authorized by law to be private.

10. Highland's conduct in closing the meeting to the press and public was wanton and willful, and reflects a continuing pattern of activity in violation of the Sunshine Act.

(Reproduced Record (R.R.) at 7a.) The District filed an answer to the complaint and provided these responses to TTM's averments:

5. The allegations of Paragraph 5 are admitted only insofar that on June 8, 2009 after the conclusion of the advertised public meeting, the Highlands School Board and Solicitor Ira Weis met in an executive session as permitted by the Sunshine Law, 65 Pa. C.S. ยง708[(a)](4). ...


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