As the ongoing coronavirus (also known as Covid-19) pandemic continues to spread, many public bodies are being presented for the first time with a new issue: how to conduct virtual public meetings to maintain compliance with mandatory shelter in place requirements from the Governor of Pennsylvania while still complying with the Pennsylvania Sunshine Law.
- General Requirements
Under the Sunshine Law, public entities must 1) take all public action, and engage in all deliberations of potential public actions at a public, advertised meeting, and 2) allow members of the public to offer comment on action items prior to the vote. In order to conduct a legally compliant remote meeting, the meeting procedures must allow both requirements. That is, you must provide for a away for members of the public to view the meeting, and you must allow for a form of public participation that allows for comment on items to be acted on in the agenda, at the very least.
- Public Access
We advise that, if you are going to have a virtual meeting, that the method for access to the electronic meeting be advertised in the same newspaper of general circulation as your original meeting notice. The content of this advertisement should include the time of the virtual meeting, as well as the manner in which the public is to access the stream. In addition, we advise that the method of access be generally published on your entity’s website, Facebook page, or any other way you have of sharing information with the general public.
For public access, it is important that members of the general public be able to log in and view the meeting as it occurs. We also recommend that the meeting be recorded for later re-broadcast. That will allow a strong defense against any later argument that you failed to follow the Sunshine procedure.
There are multiple options for how to meet this requirement, including utilizing a program such as Zoom or Go to Meeting. Talk to your IT professional about what option is best for your district.
- Public Comment
There are generally two options for how to allow public comment in an online meeting. The first is to allow for members of the public to submit email questions or comments in advance, to be read into the record by a member of the board or staff. The second option is to allow for members of the public to utilize a service such as Zoom to make comments. Be aware that some municipalities have already run into problems with internet “trolls” causing issues on such open channels. If you want to maintain control of your meeting room, the option to allow for comments to be emailed and read maintains that control.
If you are going to limit public comment to emails, remember that you will need to make sure that the public has had to opportunity to review the meeting agenda prior to the comment so that they are able to have notice as necessary to satisfy the requirement that the public be given the opportunity to comment on action items. In order to best accomplish this, have your agenda published on your website well in advance of the meeting. If you add any unlisted agenda items after the close of public comment, you will need to re-open comment on those items. If possible, do not add items to the agenda or take action on unlisted agenda items that were not provided to the public in advance.
In addition, you should specify a time cut-off for emails to be received so you are not bombarded with emails at the last minute.
There is NO requirement that in person attendance be maintained as an option. Many members of your community may not have access to internet, however, that is no different than the many members of your Community who cannot physically attend your meetings currently. Be aware that for any county under a shelter in place order, allowing public attendance at the meeting in and of itself is a violation of the Governor’s order. There is no exception under the order for attendance at a public meeting.
Whether or not a quorum of members must be physically present is a question that is determined by your own specific code. MBM has published a guide to the various municipal codes which may be helpful on this issue.
- Miscellaneous Issues
Above all, stay informed! This situation is changing frequently. Be in regular contact with your solicitor to make sure you continue to implement best practices.