Public Meetings in the Wake of COVID-19

March 19, 2020

By:  Alexis Wheeler, Gretchen Moore and Alan Shuckrow

In the past weeks and months, the COVID-19 outbreak has shuttered many local government and public sector entities, along with much of private sector. While concerns over the coronavirus are widespread across all industries, unique to government agencies in Pennsylvania is the issue of how best to conduct business as required by the Sunshine Act, while balancing public health and safety risks. A hallmark of this pandemic’s effect on daily life is the concept of “social distancing,” in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus.  However, the Sunshine Act requires a public meeting anytime official action is discussed by a majority of a public body’s members.[1]

There are limited exceptions to the Sunshine Act, which includes a provision for emergency meetings that allows agencies to meet without public notice when addressing an issue “involving a clear and present danger to life or property.”[2]  However, even emergency meetings must be open to the public.[3] So, how are these bodies conducting business in an era where public gatherings are considered a public health risk?

Some local governments are addressing the issue by holding telephone or teleconference public meetings. Others are streaming meetings through television and/or the internet. Others still are taking written questions and comments from the public; allowing public participation through a conference line; or holding the public in a separate room with the appropriate social distancing measures in place.

Clearly, there is no one-size-fits-all procedure to meet the needs of every government agency in the Commonwealth. And, as the public health risks continue over a longer period of time, agencies may need to adjust their approach. However, when determining what steps your public body should take, it is paramount to understand that official action requires public comment. If an agency holds a public meeting electronically or otherwise, the Sunshine Act requires that the public be informed and able to participate.[4]

Remember, too, that there are time limits set forth in the Municipalities Planning Code and local ordinances related to the holding of public hearings or acting on applications submitted to the municipalities.  Municipalities should take stock of all outstanding applications and hearings and obtain written extensions and waivers from applicants as needed.

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 (listed below) are always available to serve as a resource, particularly at this time.

Gretchen Moore gmoore@smgglaw.com

Kathy Clark kclark@smgglaw.com

Alexis Wheeler awheeler@smgglaw.com

Alan Shuckrow ashuckrow@smgglaw.com

[1] 65 Pa.C.S.A. § 704 .

[2] 65 Pa.C.S.A. § 709(a); 65 Pa.C.S.A. § 703.

[3] See  65 Pa.C.S.A. § 704 (Official action and deliberations by a quorum of the members of an agency shall take place at a meeting open to the public unless closed under section 707 (relating to exceptions to open meetings), 708 (relating to executive sessions) or 712 (relating to General Assembly meetings covered)”).

[4] Id.; Office of Open Records, OOR Guidance on Public Meetings, Penn. State. Assoc. of Twp. Supervisors. (2020), (http://psats.org.s97340.gridserver.com/ckfinder/userfiles/files/OORGuidanceonPublicMeetings.pdf ).