Best Practices for Open Meetings during the COVID-19 Pandemic*

April 8, 2020

*Co-Authored by Alexis Wheeler, Ena Lebel, and Gretchen Moore

This is a supplement to our March 19, 2020 blog post “Public Meetings in the Wake of COVID-19.”  As public agencies grow some-what accustomed to operating in the unprecedented era of the COVID-19 pandemic, best practices for open meetings under the Sunshine Act have begun to develop. Here are some of those best practices for adhering to the Act when conducting official business:

Technology

  • The Pennsylvania Office of Open Records has issued guidance that, while under the Act “public meetings should be held at public buildings with open public participation whenever possible,” the issuance of an emergency declaration (like the one issued by Governor Wolf on March 6, 2020) may permit meetings to be held by other means.[1]
  • Unless specified by statute or other controlling authority, the physical presence of a quorum may not be necessary to carry out business, allowing a meeting to be held over the phone or internet. This is the case for Townships of the Second Class and Parking Authorities. The case may be different for other agencies (such as Boroughs), so it is important to consult your solicitor.
  • Any technology used to hold an open meeting should allow for two-way communication and public comment. Technologies like Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams, and Facebook Live have been suggested. Conference calls may seem like the “old-fashioned” way to hold a meeting with two-way communication, but is often the easiest method to utilize and allows for the broadest range of public participants. A combination of the above can also be used.
  • It is recommended that all such meetings be recorded and that the recording be made available to the public.

 Notice

  • It is paramount to inform the public of the agency’s practice for holding public meetings remotely.
  • Notice of such a meeting should be published as usual as well as on the agency’s website.
  • Notice should include the manner by which the public can obtain access to the meeting and instructions on how to participate.
  • Post the agenda and meeting materials as soon as practicable and also allow for the opportunity for residents to send e-mail comments in advance of or during the meeting.
  • Social media may be helpful in disseminating notice as well as the meeting agenda and meeting minutes.
  • After the meeting, post draft minutes or a recording of the meeting.

Public Comment

  • Allowing for public comment is still required when holding public meetings remotely.
  • The governing body must be able to hear or read the comments.
  • A specified call-in period or a live chat may be useful ways to allow the public to be heard.

These matters are complicated, and the situation will continue to evolve.  If you have any questions, we suggest that you first consult your Solicitor.

Moreover, our public sector attorneys at SMGG are always available to serve as a resource, particularly at this time.  Feel free to contact Gretchen Moore at gmoore@smgglaw.com, Kathy Clark at kclark@smgglaw.com, Alexis Wheeler at awheeler@smgglaw.com, or Alan Shuckrow at ashuckrow@smgglaw.com.

[1] Erik Arneson, The Sunshine Act and the Coronavirus (COVID-19),  Pa. Office of Open Records (March 11, 2020)  https://openrecordspennsylvania.com/2020/03/11/the-sunshine-act-and-covid-19/.