COVID-19 AND THE SUNSHINE ACT
On March 6, 2020, Governor Wolf issued an emergency disaster declaration due to the COVID- 19 health crisis. Such a declaration creates greater flexibility for municipalities to comply with the Sunshine Act with regard to public meetings. Therefore, municipalities may want to consider physically closing meetings to the public, but keeping them open to the public via conference call (or similar means). Conference call meetings must be carefully administered so as not to run afoul of the Sunshine Act. You should also consider the logistics and be sure any method chosen to conduct the meetings has been tested beforehand.
We have included with this memo guidance from the PA Office of Open Records, and we have summarized that guidance below.
- Now that Governor Wolf has issued an Emergency Declaration, municipalities may hold meetings via teleconference, webinar, or other electronic method that allows for two-way communication. The two-way communication is key. Public participants must be able to hear and be heard. Moderating such a meeting will present new challenges such as clearly identifying for the public who is speaking and ensuring that the public has an opportunity to speak on current business. The proposed media or forum for the meeting should be tested ahead of the meeting, including the public accessibility.
- Municipalities having conference call meetings must provide a reasonably accessible method for the public to participate and comment pursuant to Section 710.1 of the Sunshine Act. That method should be clearly explained to the public by a newspaper advertisement, website, Facebook (if applicable), and posting at municipal offices in advance of the meeting. We can assist municipalities with the language of the notice at your request.
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- The Office of Open Records strongly recommends that any municipality holding such a meeting record the meeting and proactively make the recording available so that a full and complete record of the meeting is available to the public.
- Our firm is able to provide conference call-in numbers to you free of charge, so please let us know if you want to advertise a call-in number for residents to use in order to “attend” supervisor or council meetings. Obviously, postponing or canceling meetings is also an option. However, you should remember that deadlines for municipal actions are not automatically postponed (such as action on plans, zoning hearings, notices of violation, etc.), and appropriate time waivers should be obtained.
Please feel free to call or email Andy Miller (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Doug Myers (email@example.com) if you have any questions about these matters.