Last updated March 31 at 9:07 a.m.
This advisory relates to all meetings governed by the Sunshine Act; it is not limited to emergency meetings.
As a starting point, it’s key for agencies to remember that transparency builds trust, especially in times of crisis.
The Sunshine Act is clear that public meetings should be held at public buildings with open public participation whenever possible. If an official emergency declaration prevents that from happening, a meeting via teleconference, webinar, or other electronic method that allows for two-way communication is generally permissible.
Any agency taking that step 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 in advance of and during the meeting.
Further, the Office of Open Records strongly recommends that any agency holding such a meeting record the meeting and proactively make the recording available (preferably online) so that a full and complete record of the meeting is available to the public.
35 Pa.C.S. § 7501(d) allows agencies under a “declaration of disaster emergency” (here’s the March 6 disaster emergency declaration signed by Governor Wolf and information about the declaration) to suspend the need to comply with certain “formal requirements.” In context, any such suspensions must be related to the emergency in some way.
Some agencies are governed by laws which add requirements beyond those included in the Sunshine Act. For example, both the Borough Code and the Third Class City Code explicitly require that a majority of members be physically present for purposes of determining a quorum. In such cases, the provisions of 35 Pa.C.S. § 7501(d) can come into play. The OOR encourages agencies to consult with their solicitors on such issues.
Agencies, solicitors, and members of the public with any questions are welcome to contact the OOR. Using the OOR contact form is the best way to reach us at this time, as we are all working remotely.
Guidance from the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association
The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association has also issued guidance related to the Sunshine Act, which can be read here (PDF).
If and when events warrant any update to this advice, it will be posted here.