Legal Hotline: Remote Public Meetings

Legal Hotline: Remote Public Meetings

PNA Legal Hotline

Q:  Has the Sunshine Act or other law been amended to address the need for social distance during the COVID-19 disaster declaration?

A:  The Sunshine Act has not been amended and remains in full force and effect, and SB 841 (Act 15 of 2020) was passed by the General Assembly and signed by the Governor on April 20, 2020. Act 15 addresses several issues related to the COVID-19 disaster declaration, including the ability of local agencies to hold remote public meetings.  The law also authorizes remote notary services provided certain conditions are met, as discussed in a prior Q & A from the Legal Hotline.

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.  Notably, Act 15 does not apply to school districts.

During the COVID-19 crisis, local agencies may conduct remote meetings using a “telecommunications device”, which is defined as “any device which permits, at a minimum, audio communication between individuals.” Some common examples of “telecommunication device” would include multi-line conference calls, online meeting platforms like Zoom and WebEx, social media platforms such as Facebook Live, and other real-time communication tools that permit the public to witness, and ideally interact with, elected officials during the meeting.

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 the 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 an opportunity for public participation, to the extent practicable under Act 15.  Like advance notice, public participation is required unless it is impossible, and again, the Sunshine Act remains in full force and effect. 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.

The Office of Open Records has updated its guidance on remote public meetings and Sunshine Act compliance in light of Act 15’s enactment.  In addition to the requirements of Act 15, the OOR advises agencies to record remote meetings and post the recordings on the agency’s website, if the agency has one.  The OOR also recommends agencies use additional means of providing information about remote public meetings such as social media postings and email communications.  The OOR also advises agencies to accept public comment in all viable mediums including teleconference/video conference technology, email and US Mail.

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.