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The new ballot error leading PA to reject votes

Plus, lawmaker challenges private meetings of state opioid board.

This is The Investigator, a free weekly newsletter with the top news from across Pennsylvania.
A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom producing investigative journalism for Pennsylvania.

June 6, 2024 | spotlightpa.org

Fewer mail ballots were rejected for voter errors overall in this year’s primary election, an achievement that the state credits to a modified ballot return envelope designed to help voters avoid mistakes.

But state data point to a new type of voter mistake affecting ballot rejections, a Votebeat and Spotlight PA analysis shows. And the way counties have diverged in their response to this error has opened up a new avenue for litigation ahead of November's presidential contest.

Also this week, a water utility company in rural Centre County continues to operate despite leaks, outages, low pressure, lengthy boil advisories, and crumbling infrastructure

Finally, Pennsylvania lawmakers are entering into budget season with the joint goal of making it more affordable to attend college in the commonwealth. As with most issues in the Capitol, Democrats and Republicans have different ideas about how to do it.


There are more than a million unpaid caregivers in Pennsylvania fulfilling vital and complex health care roles for loved ones, often with no training and few resources. You may be one. You may know one. Data show many of us will become one.

Spotlight PA's newest weekly newsletter, How We Care, provides original reporting, guidance, and resources to empower home as well as professional caregivers across Pennsylvania. Sign up here.

QUEERING THE NEWS: Join us Thursday, June 13 from 6-7 p.m. ET on Zoom for a free discussion with a panel of experts on Pennsylvania’s queer media landscape — past, present, and future. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org.

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Lawmaker challenges private meetings of state opioid board after Spotlight PA, WESA reporting

A member of the board overseeing Pennsylvania’s opioid settlement money said he’s concerned the group’s actions don’t comply with the state’s Sunshine Act, echoing transparency questions first raised publicly by Spotlight PA and WESA.

“After a review of the statute, it is not clear to me that these working groups can legitimately meet in private,” state Sen. Greg Rothman (R., Cumberland) wrote in a letter dated March 26, which his office recently provided to Spotlight PA. 

The court order creating the Pennsylvania Opioid Misuse and Addiction Abatement Trust requires the group to follow the state’s open meetings law. That law covers a wide range of agencies and “all committees thereof authorized by the body to take official action or render advice on matters of agency business.”

Pennsylvania expects to receive more than $1 billion through settlements and litigation with opioid companies, and the trust is responsible for distributing it. Most of the money is going to counties, and they had to file their first comprehensive spending reports with the trust earlier this year. The trust can cut funding if it decides counties spent inappropriately.

At a public meeting in February, the board approved a plan presented by Chair Tom VanKirk to review these reports in smaller groups, which would be responsible for making recommendations for the full board to consider in public. 

VanKirk said having these smaller meetings in private is “proper under the Sunshine Act” without detailing why. He said the working groups would not have the authority to take official action, but he did not address the Sunshine Act requirements for committees that render advice.

In a March 6 story, Spotlight PA and WESA examined whether the plan violated the state’s Sunshine Act. Two attorneys and the president of the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition told the news organizations the meetings should be public. 

Later that month, Rothman urged VanKirk to make the working group sessions public. In his letter, he also raised concerns about the group’s use of private executive sessions, which the law allows for limited reasons, such as consulting with an attorney regarding litigation. Rothman wrote, “executive sessions prior to Trust meetings have been broader in scope than I think acceptable given the limited topics which can be discussed.”

“The public should be privy to the candid discussions, thoughtful questions, and deliberations of the Board of Trustees and all its sub-groups,” Rothman added.

After Spotlight PA asked the trust about Rothman’s letter, VanKirk again offered no direct legal explanation for why the working group meetings are allowed to be private under the Sunshine Act, but indicated the interpretation was “based on advice of counsel.” In response to separate questions, he said it was inaccurate to call the working groups “committees,” but he offered no distinction or difference between the two terms — other than the name. 

VanKirk also said, “all matters discussed in executive session were properly within the scope of what is permitted under Pennsylvania law.”

After Rothman sent the letter, VanKirk shared it with the full board, according to Rothman's office and VanKirk. Other board members had an opportunity “to raise any comments or concerns related to” the letter, but did not do so, according to VanKirk.

The trust proceeded with its secret work groups, VanKirk acknowledged at the May public meeting. VanKirk told Spotlight PA that Rothman “and/or his representative participated in the working group process.” Rothman said he’s “been consistently advocating for transparency and openness, and will continue to do so.”

The trust’s next public meeting is scheduled for June 20. Ed Mahon, Spotlight PA

🤔 NEXT QUESTION: Are you on top of the news? Prove it with the latest edition of the Great PA News Quiz: Minimum wage to the max, Shapiro's radio hour, and Biden's border order

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