Legal Hotline: Remote Public Meeting Records

Legal Hotline: Remote Public Meeting Records

PNA Legal Hotline

Q:  A local agency has been holding remote public meetings and discussing records and power point presentations during those meeting. Our reporter asked the board secretary for copies of the records and power point presentations discussed during the most recent remote meeting. The board secretary said we must file a formal, written RTKL request and said it will be at least 30 days before they will provide copies via email.  Is that right?

A: No, the agency should simply provide access to the records without the need for the formal RTKL process.

SB 841 (Act 15 of 2020) was passed by the General Assembly and signed by the Governor on April 20, 2020. This bill addresses several issues related to the COVID-19 disaster declaration, including the ability of local agencies to hold remote public meetings.

Regarding public meetings, Act 15’s provisions governing local government public meetings apply only during the COVID-19 crisis and shall only be applicable until the disaster emergency expires or is terminated by the Governor.  When an agency relies on Act 15 to hold a remote public meeting, the agency must provide advance public notice, to the extent practicable, meaning that unless it is impossible, an agency must provide advance notice of the meeting. The advance notice must include the date, time, technology to be utilized, and means by which the public can participate. This notice must be posted on the agency’s website, if any, in a newspaper of general circulation, or both.  To the extent advance public notice is not practicable and an agency holds a remote public meeting related to COVID-19, the agency must post draft minutes of the meeting within 20 days after the meeting or before the next regularly scheduled meeting, whichever occurs first.

The agency must also provide a meaningful opportunity for public participation, to the extent practicable.  Like advance notice, public participation is required unless it is impossible.  Public participation must be provided through an authorized telecommunication device or written comments, which may be submitted via US Mail or to the agency’s designated email address.

In order to facilitate meaningful public participation, agencies holding remote public meetings should provide access to board packet materials in advance of meetings and upon demand after a meeting has ended without the need for the formal RTKL process. There is no question that records discussed during a public meeting are public records. The RTKL does not require a formal, written RTKL request and in fact, requiring requesters to invoke the formal legal process will result in time delays and additional work for public employees.

When an agency holds a public meeting, meeting materials should be posted on the agency website in advance, if the agency maintains a website. If an agency receives a request for records to be discussed or that were already discussed at a public meeting, the agency should simply provide access in compliance with the letter and intent of the law and without the need for a formal administrative process. The RTKL was created to facilitate public access to records, not to erect administrative barriers to public records.

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