Legal Hotline: Sunshine work sessions

  • Feb 11, 2016

Melissa Melewsky, Media Law Counsel

Q:  A newly elected borough council has begun to hold private “work sessions,” where a majority of council discusses and decides which issues will be addressed at the next public meeting and which will not.  Their solicitor says work sessions are not required to be public because there are no final votes taking place.  Doesn’t the Sunshine Act require these types of discussions and decisions about agency business to be held at a public meeting?
A:  Yes, the Sunshine Act applies.  The terminology used to describe a meeting like “work session” plays no role in determining whether the Sunshine Act applies, and the law requires public access at all stages of policy formation, not just the final vote.  If there is a quorum of the agency deliberating agency business or taking official action, the Sunshine Act applies.
The Sunshine Act requires that anytime a quorum of an agency deliberates agency business or takes official action, it must do so at a public meeting unless an exception applies.  There are several limited exceptions that allow certain discussions to happen outside a public meeting, but there is no blanket exception for “work sessions,” or other discussions that lead to a decision.
A quorum of an agency is the number required to take official action, usually one more than half.  Deliberation is defined as “the discussion of agency business held for the purpose of making a decision,” and agency business is defined to include “the framing, preparation, making or enactment of laws, policy or regulations.” 
These broad definitions, coupled with the intent of the law, make it clear that discussions by a quorum about moving forward with an item of agency business are “deliberation of agency business," requiring a properly advertised public meeting, even if there is no final vote scheduled to take place.   Moreover, a decision to proceed with an item of agency business could constitute “official action,” which can only occur at a public meeting and only after an opportunity for public comment. 
When agencies discuss and decide which issues to address and which not to, the public is entitled to witness and participate in the process under the Sunshine Act, absent a valid exception to the law.
As always, this is not intended to be, nor should it be construed as, legal advice.  Please call your attorney or the PNA Legal Hotline with questions at (717) 703-3080.

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