Legal Hotline: Sunshine Act – Right to Object

Legal Hotline: Sunshine Act – Right to Object

PNA Legal Hotline

Q: A local agency is utilizing advanced communication technology to hold virtual public meetings during the COVID-19 disaster declaration. The board does not allow the public to submit comments during the meeting using the chat or audio functions, email or any other method of real-time communication. There have been several questionable executive sessions, but we have not been able to raise objections to these perceived violations as they are taking place. Is that OK?

A:  No. This is not consistent with rights enshrined in the Sunshine Act, which, among other things, expressly provides for the right to raise an objection at any time during a public meeting if there is a perceived violation of the law.

The Sunshine Act does not distinguish between meetings held in person and those held virtually during the COVID-19 disaster declaration. If a quorum is deliberating agency business or taking official action, the meeting is subject to the Sunshine Act and all its attendant rights and duties apply.

Section 710.1 of the act governs public comment. Section 710.1(c) of the Sunshine Act states:

(c)  Objection.–Any person has the right to raise an objection at any time to a perceived violation of this chapter at any meeting of a board or council of a political subdivision or an authority created by a political subdivision.

As you can see, the law allows members of the public to raise an objection to a perceived violation of the law at any time during a public meeting. The intent of this provision is to allow the public to caution the board about the requirements of the law and stop a perceived violation before it occurs.

Further, Section 706 requires agencies to keep meeting minutes, and the minutes must include “[T]he names of all citizens who appeared officially and the subject of their testimony.” This provision requires the agency to note the name of any objector and the substance of their objection as part of the official meeting minutes.

To comply with the law, agencies must allow the public to raise an objection to a perceived violation and the agency must also note the objection in the official minutes. There are numerous ways this right can be facilitated, including chat and comment functions, phone, text or emails checked in real time, or other means of communication, but at a minimum, the right to object must be available during the meeting.

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