New Citizens’ Guide to the RTKL and Sunshine Act

Open records_logo stacked

The OOR’s Citizens’ Guide to the Right-to-Know Law and Sunshine Act is an introduction to these two laws, both of which promote government transparency.

The Citizens’ Guide has been completely rewritten and the new version is available now.

The RTKL, also known as the open records law, grants access to public records. The Sunshine Act, also known as the open meetings law, ensures access to public meetings.

The Citizens’ Guide, a 12-page PDF, includes sections on how to file a request, agencies subject to the RTKL, fees under the RTKL, how to file an appeal, and more.

Court Orders Sunshine Act Training

Open records_logo stackedThe Court of Common Pleas in Westmoreland County recently ordered officials from the City of Monessen to attend Sunshine Act training provided by the Office of Open Records.

In the opinion and order, Judge Harry F. Smail, Jr., discussed a public meeting held by the City at which “there was absolutely no opportunity for public comment on the motions to fire the city solicitor, to hire the new city solicitor, to terminate the city administrator, to hire the new city administrator, to restrict access to city cameras, to rescind a Sewage Authority Board appointment and to advertise for the vacancy on the Sewage Authority Board.”

Those actions, Judge Smail said, “are facially apparent violations of Section 710.1(a) of the Sunshine Act.”

As a result, Judge Smail ordered — and we believe this is a first-of-its-kind order in Pennsylvania — that “Defendants Councilmembers of the City of Monessen and Defendant Mayor Matt Shorraw … attend a Sunshine Act training through the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, to be scheduled … within thirty (30) days of the date of this Order of Court.”

The order was dated Dec. 11, and the OOR has been contacted by the City of Monessen to schedule the mandatory training session.

If you’d like to schedule training with the OOR, mandatory or otherwise, take a look at our training calendar and then contact us. We provide training on the Sunshine Act and the Right-to-Know Law.

Survey Results: COVID-19’s Impact on RTKL & Sunshine Act

Open records_logo stackedThe Office of Open Records recently conducted two surveys about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the administration of Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law (open records law) and Sunshine Act (open meetings law).

Some of the highlights were discussed yesterday at the OOR’s 2020 Annual Training, and here are the complete results:

Results from the COVID-19 Survey for AOROs (377 responses)
Results from the COVID-19 Survey for Requesters (26 responses)

Please note that approximately 40 executive agencies submitted a single joint response to the AORO survey, which the OOR thanks them for. Consequently, some of the results in that survey require deeper analysis to be considered truly representative.

Also note that due to the relatively small number of responses to the requester survey, it’s difficult (perhaps impossible) to draw any broad conclusions. However, I do believe some significant and useful information can be gleaned from reviewing those results.

Thank you to everyone who took the time to answer either of the surveys. We appreciate it.

OOR 2020 Annual Training – Complete Video

Open records_logo stackedThe Office of Open Records held its 2020 annual training yesterday via Zoom.

Most years, our Annual Training only includes voices from the OOR. This year, the training focused on the impact of COVID-19 on the administration of Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law and Sunshine Act and we were joined by several extremely smart and knowledgeable people from outside the OOR. The complete lineup included:

  • Erik Arneson, OOR Executive Director
  • Charles Rees Brown, Esq., OOR Chief Counsel
  • Nathanael Byerly, Esq., OOR Deputy Director
  • Scott Coburn, Esq., PA State Association of Township Supervisors
  • Thomas Howell, Esq., PA Office of General Counsel Deputy General Counsel
  • Delene Lantz, Esq., OOR General Counsel
  • Melissa Melewsky, Esq., PA NewsMedia Association Media Law Counsel
  • George Spiess, OOR Chief of Outreach and Training

The complete video of the OOR’s 2020 Annual Training is available on the OOR YouTube channel (and below).

The PowerPoint presentation used during the training is available here:

OOR Annual Training – Nov. 18, 2020 (PPTX)
OOR Annual Training – Nov. 18, 2020 (PPTX)

Information about other OOR training sessions, including upcoming webinars, can be found on the OOR’s Training Calendar.

Presentation from Today’s OOR Annual Training

Open records_logo stackedEarlier this afternoon, the Office of Open Records hosted its Annual Training on the RTKL and the Sunshine Act.

The PowerPoint presentation used during that session is available here:

OOR Annual Training – Nov. 18, 2020 (PPTX)
OOR Annual Training – Nov. 18, 2020 (PPTX)

We plan to provide the entire session on the OOR’s YouTube channel as soon as possible.

Information about other OOR training sessions, including upcoming webinars, can be found on the OOR’s Training Calendar.

OOR Annual Training: Today at 1:30 p.m.

Open records_logo stackedThe Office of Open Records is hosting its Annual Training today (Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020) at 1:30 p.m.

This year’s session will focus on how the pandemic has affected the Right-to-Know Law and the Sunshine Act.

Scheduled panelists include:

  • Erik Arneson, OOR Executive Director
  • Charles Rees Brown, Esq., OOR Chief Counsel
  • Nathanael Byerly, Esq., OOR Deputy Director
  • Scott Coburn, Esq., PA State Association of Township Supervisors
  • Thomas Howell, Esq., PA Office of General Counsel Deputy General Counsel
  • Michael F. Krimmel, Esq., Commonwealth Court Prothonotary
  • Delene Lantz, Esq., OOR General Counsel
  • Melissa Melewsky, Esq., PA NewsMedia Association Media Law Counsel
  • George Spiess, OOR Chief of Outreach and Training

You can get more details and register for the Annual Training here. Unfortunately, CLEs are not available this year.

We plan to record today’s Annual Training to make it available on the OOR’s YouTube channel.

Information about other OOR training sessions, including upcoming webinars, can be found on the OOR’s Training Calendar.

OOR Conducting Surveys About the COVID-19 Pandemic

Open records_logo stackedThe Office of Open Records is conducting two surveys about the administration of the Right-to-Know Law and the Sunshine Act during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We would love to have your input.

If you are an Agency Open Records Officer (AORO), please complete this 34-question survey.

If you are a requester (e.g., member of the public, reporter, etc.), please complete this 25-question survey.

Each survey should take about 10 minutes. The deadline to complete the surveys is Monday, Nov. 16, 2020.

The survey results will be discussed at the OOR’s Annual Training on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020, and will also be posted here on the Open Records in Pennsylvania blog. Note that all survey responses are records under the RTKL.

OOR 2020 Annual Training: Nov. 18 at 1:30 p.m.

Open records_logo stackedThe Office of Open Records is hosting its Annual Training on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020, at 1:30 p.m.

This year’s session will focus on how the pandemic has affected the Right-to-Know Law and the Sunshine Act. It’s scheduled to include representatives of the OOR, state agencies, local agencies, and the media. There will be plenty of time for questions and answers.

You can get more details and register for the Annual Training here. Unfortunately, CLEs are not available this year.

Information about other OOR training sessions, including upcoming webinars, can be found on the OOR’s Training Calendar.

Speaking to Students at Robert Morris University

Yesterday, I traveled to Robert Morris University near Pittsburgh to speak to Dr. Philip Harold’s journalism class about Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law and Sunshine Act. (Well, “traveled” is not quite accurate… we used Google Meet.)

It was a great discussion with fantastic questions, and I appreciate the invitation very much.

Here’s the PowerPoint presentation I used:

Robert Morris University – Dr. Philip Harold – April 22, 2020 (PPTX)
Robert Morris University – Dr. Philip Harold – April 22, 2020 (PDF)

If you’re a professor in Pennsylvania and you’d like me to speak to your class, let me know and I’ll do my best to make it happen.

The Sunshine Act and the Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Office of Open Records LogoThe Office of Open Records has issued the following Advisory regarding Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act and the coronavirus (COVID-19).

Last updated January 7, 2021, at 9:32 a.m.

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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.

Act 15 of 2020 (formerly Senate Bill 841) went into effect on April 20. (Note: The Sunshine Act still applies.)

Chapter 57, Subchapter E, of Act 15 contains provisions regarding local government agency meetings during the COVID-19 emergency. Subchapter E is temporary and its provisions are limited to the duration of the COVID-19 emergency.

Some of the key provisions include:

  • Clarifying that local government agencies are authorized to hold remote meetings during the emergency. A physical quorum (i.e., a quorum all in the same room) is not needed. However, there must be a quorum participating remotely.
  • “To the extent practicable” local government agencies must provide advance notice of all remote meetings including date, time, technology, and how the public can participate. Such notice must be posted on the agency’s website, in a newspaper of general circulation, or both. The OOR also encourages agencies to use social media, email newsletters, and any other method it has available to provide notice.
  • “To the extent practicable,” local government agencies must provide for public participation directly through the teleconferencing or videoconferencing system used to hold the meeting, via email and/or via postal mail. (Ideally, agencies will accommodate all three methods and possibly others.)
  • NOTE: “Practicable” is a much stronger word than “practical.” (Merriam-Webster defines “practicable” as “capable of being put into practice or of being done or accomplished; feasible.” In other words, unless it is actually impossible to do so, it must be done. This means that advance notice and public participation are essentially required.)
  • If an emergency meeting (i.e., a meeting called without public notice) related to COVID-19 takes places, the minutes of that emergency meeting must be made available within 20 days.

Note that the above provisions of Act 15 may not apply to school entities, and the OOR encourages school entities to consult their solicitors on this point. (See McGrath v. Board of School Directors of the City of Scranton and School District of the City of Scranton, Lackawanna County CCP No. 20 CV 3698.) This does not mean that school entities cannot hold remote meetings — they can, subject to the Sunshine Act and other relevant laws. Any school entity 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.

Act 15 includes other provisions relevant to local government agencies and school entities, and the OOR encourages consultation with solicitors regarding the entire law.

In addition to the provisions of Act 15, the Office of Open Records strongly recommends that any agency holding a remote meeting record the meeting and proactively make the recording available (preferably online) so that a full and complete record of the meeting is easily accessible by the public.

To the extent that agenda items can be delayed until in-person meetings can resume, it’s a good idea to do so.

Here’s the March 6 disaster emergency declaration signed by Governor Wolf and information about the declaration.

NOTE: On June 3, Gov. Wolf extended the emergency declaration for an additional 90 days. Subsequently, the General Assembly passed HR 836 to terminate the emergency declaration. The issue is now pending before the Commonwealth Court and the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. The view of the OOR is that the provisions of Act 15 which are limited to the duration of the COVID-19 emergency remain in effect while this case is pending in court.

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.

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.

Information about the coronavirus (COVID-19) is available from the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.