Sunshine Act Penalties

  • Jul 20, 2017

Melissa Melewsky, Media Law Counsel

Q:  A borough held an unadvertised special meeting and voted to create a contract during the meeting. Does the Sunshine Act automatically void the contract because the meeting was not properly advertised?

A:  No. The Sunshine Act does not automatically void official action taken in violation of the act. There must first be a legal challenge (lawsuit) filed with the appropriate court, and the court must find that a violation occurred.

The Sunshine Act requires all official action to take place at a properly advertised public meeting, and only after a meaningful opportunity for public comment. Official action (voting) taken outside a public meeting is not authorized by law and is subject to challenge. Section 713 of the Sunshine Act allows a legal challenge to be filed within 30 days of an open meeting or within 30 days of the discovery of a closed meeting, but no later than one year after an alleged violation. If a court determines that a violation occurred, it may declare any or all official action taken at the meeting invalid. Courts may also order injunctive relief and fashion other appropriate remedies, including the award of attorney’s fees, under the civil penalty provisions of the Sunshine Act if a violation is found to have occurred. In order to pursue the civil remedies in the Act, a civil lawsuit in a court with proper jurisdiction must be filed. For local agencies like school boards, townships, and counties, the county Court of Common Pleas has jurisdiction.

The Act also allows for the imposition of criminal penalties for intentional violations of the law. Section 714 of the Sunshine Act makes it a summary offence to violate the law, and a court can impose a fine between $100 and $1,000 for a first offense, and up to $2,000 for second and subsequent offenses, plus the costs of prosecution. A criminal challenge under the Act would not result in official action being invalidated. To pursue the criminal sanctions of the Act against a local elected official, a private criminal complaint must be filed with the District Attorney, who will decide whether charges are appropriate. 

As always, this is not intended to be, nor should it be construed as, legal advice.  Please consult your newspaper’s private attorney or call the PNA Legal Hotline at (717) 703-3080 with questions.

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