PNA supports amendment to require agendas – important public access tool #HB1155

  • Jun 20, 2016

Paula Knudsen, Director, Government Affairs/Legislative Counsel

Chairman Daryl Metcalfe
Chairman Mark Cohen
House State Government Committee

June 20, 2016
 
    Re: House Bill 1155

Dear Chairman Metcalfe and Chairman Cohen:

The Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association is the statewide trade association for print and online news media in Pennsylvania, and counts more than 300 print, digital and related media organizations as members. On behalf of PNA's members, we write to support House Bill 1155, scheduled for a vote on June 21, 2016 in the House State Government Committee.

 

As you know, HB 1155 would amend section 709 of the Sunshine Act to require agencies to create and make available a copy of the agenda 24 hours in advance of a public meeting, and PNA supports the proposed bill. There is no statewide law that requires agencies to produce a meeting agenda, and many do not. An agenda is an important public access tool that enables citizens to decide when to attend public meetings, facilitates public participation during public meetings, and keeps those who cannot attend informed.

The Sunshine Act requires agencies to provide a reasonable opportunity for public comment on matters that "are or may be before the board" at public meetings, but that requirement is meaningless if the public has no way of knowing which matters will be deliberated or decided by an agency in advance of the meeting. Some Pennsylvania laws already recognize the importance of advance public notice about the subject matter of a meeting. For example, the Second Class Township Code requires townships to provide notice of the nature of the business to be conducted at any special meeting. Another example of advance posting of agendas is the home rule charter of Luzerne County, which requires the agenda to be public 72 hours in advance of regular meetings and 24 hours before special meetings. In fact, 19 states and the District of Columbia have laws requiring the agenda to be part of the public notice published in advance of public meetings. In fact, the legislation would be improved more significantly if it required the inclusion of some agenda information in the actual public notice.

 

PNA members from throughout the state have experienced problems obtaining basic information about meeting content, as well as obtaining copies of agendas. In September 2014, this Committee heard testimony from the Beaver County Times, LNP (Lancaster) and the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition about the difficulties they have encountered when trying to access meeting agendas (past testimony attached). 

Recent agenda experiences from around the state include:
  • Columbia Borough Council -- reporter charged $32.00 for meeting agenda and supporting materials, and didn't receive the information until several days after the meeting.1
  • Radnor Township School Board --Citizens urged school board members to provide agendas in advance to encourage greater community participation.2
  • City of Monongahela -- City Council rarely follows an agenda.3
  • Advance production of agendas is already occurring: Harrisburg, Lower Paxton Township, Monroe Township, Silver Spring Township, South Hanover, Steelton and West Hanover all had links to agendas to the next week's meetings on Friday, March 4 for meetings the following week.4 The City of Coatesville, Media Borough, West Chester Borough and Upper Darby Township post agendas online in advance of meetings.5
 Advance public access to meeting agendas facilitates public attendance at meetings and allows citizens to be more engaged in agencies' decision making processes. A well-informed, actively involved citizenry is a hallmark of good government. The PNA urges the House State Government Committee to act in favor of transparency and vote to advance HB 1155.

Sincerely,

Paula K. Knudsen

Director of Government Affairs/Legislative counsel

Cc: Rep. Jim Christiana

 


1 LNP (Lancaster), April 4, 2016. http://lancasteronline.com/news/local/in-columbia-public-documents-given-after-the-fact-and-for/article_d7f6e168-f9dd-11e5-b94c-0738db5157c5.html
2 Main Line Media News, April 19, 2016 http://www.mainlinemedianews.com/articles/2016/04/19/main_line_suburban_life/news/doc570e4d1f9f6f3475000319.txt?viewmode=default
3 Observer-Reporter (Washington), March 12, 2016 http://www.observer-reporter.com/article/20160312/NEWS01/160319825
4 PennLive/The Patriot-News (Harrisburg), March 17, 2016 http://www.pennlive.com/news/2016/03/when_it_comes_to_government_me.html
5 Daily Local News (West Chester), March 18, 2016 http://www.dailylocal.com/general-news/20160318/government-transparency-put-to-the-test-in-chesco-and-delco

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