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 May 5 at 10:05 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.

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 do not apply to school entities. (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.

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.

March 20 in Pittsburgh: Sunshine Week Conference

On Friday, March 20, I’ll be speaking about the Right-to-Know Law as part of the Access, Transparency and Your Right to Know daylong conference taking place at the Kimpton Hotel Monaco in Pittsburgh.

My discussion (and there will be plenty of opportunity for Q&A) will take place during the luncheon, but the entire event kicks off at 9:30 a.m.

Here’s how the organizers describe the event:

A coalition of nonprofit media organizations is holding a one-day conference to explore Pennsylvania’s open government and right-to-know laws. Timed to fall within Sunshine Week 2020, the gathering will feature sessions aimed at professional journalists, students, and individuals who have an interest in accessing government meetings and information.

Sessions will look at the Pennsylvania Right to Know Act, the Clean Slate law, the Sunshine Act and other access and transparency issues and the event will feature a keynote presentation from Erik Arneson, executive director of the Office of Open Records. Additional speakers to include representation from the ACLU, UVA Law School’s First Amendment Clinic, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, PA Post, PublicSource, Spotlight PA, StateImpactPA, The Caucus and more.

Schedule and session program forthcoming.

More information is available here.

I hope you can join us!

Sunshine Act Webpage Updated

Office of Open Records LogoThe Office of Open Records webpage about Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act was updated recently.

We added four new sections:

  1. What’s considered deliberation?
  2. Can agency members participate in a meeting via telephone or video conference?
  3. Can official action be taken at a closed meeting?
  4. Can agency members discuss agency business via email and/or social media?

And made noteworthy updates to three sections:

  1. Can the public comment during public meetings?
  2. Can public meetings be recorded?
  3. Are there penalties for violating the Sunshine Act?

We also clarified that advance public notice is required for agency committee meetings, and that published notice must be in paid newspapers of general circulation (in addition to being posted on site).

The OOR does not have enforcement authority over the Sunshine Act, but Section 1310(a)(3) of the Right-to-Know Law authorizes (and in fact requires) the OOR to provide training on the Act. If you’re interested in training about the Sunshine Act and/or the Right-to-Know Law, please let us know.

Recent Court and OOR Decisions of Note

This morning, the Office of Open Records is hosting a webinar focusing on recent court and OOR decisions under the Right-to-Know Law and the Sunshine Act.

Here’s the PowerPoint presentation that our Chief Counsel, Charles Brown, prepared for this session:

Recent Court and OOR Decisions of Note – March 14, 2019 – PDF
Recent Court and OOR Decisions of Note – March 14, 2019 – PPTX

The OOR regularly provides training on Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law and Sunshine Act. Our training calendar is available here, and we always welcome requests to provide training.

This is Sunshine Week 2019, and we’re hosting a series of webinars. I hope you can join us for some or all of them!

Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act – Presentation

This morning, the Office of Open Records hosted a webinar all about Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act, also known as the open meetings law.

Topics covered include providing public notice of meetings, the rules about allowing public comment, executive sessions, and more.

Here’s the PowerPoint presentation that our Chief of Training & Outreach, George Spiess, used for this session:

Sunshine Act Webinar – March 13, 2019 – PDF
Sunshine Act Webinar – March 13, 2019 – PPTX

The OOR regularly provides training on Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law and Sunshine Act. Our training calendar is available here, and we always welcome requests to provide training.

This is Sunshine Week 2019, and we’re hosting a series of webinars. I hope you can join us for some or all of them!