Many agencies meeting challenge with technology
In separating people, the coronavirus pandemic did more than keep friends from socializing. In many cases, it has created a wall of separation between the public and their local representation.
Faced with unprecedented circumstances, some school boards as well as county and municipal governments are scrambling to keep their meetings open by using livestream platforms, and many have decided to
postpone their meetings.
By law, local governments and school districts can set their own regulations to maintain open meetings, but while boroughs and townships may choose not to meet, school boards are required to convene publicly at least once a month.
Whatever form it takes, “there needs to be some mechanism for public participation,” said Melewsky, media lawyer with the Pennsylvania Newsmedia Association.
For municipal officials, this can prove challenging. Municipalities are given no financial assistance from federal, state or county sources to operate remotely, yet are required to keep their meetings open to conduct business, said Melewsky.
By state mandate, officials must meet to complete certain business arrangements, but when they are expected to keep their spending low by taxpayers, they’re incentivized to save money by choosing ineffective technology platforms or policies that eliminate public comment.
In the grey area of outdated laws, municipalities are unregulated in what the platforms should be capable of doing or what policies should allow for in terms of public comment, outside of the Sunshine Act.
“It depends on the state of emergency and the type of municipality,” she said. “There is no one rule that fits all for what they can or can’t do.”
Erik Arneson, executive director of the state Office of Open Records, sent advice to municipalities on keeping their meetings open during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s key for agencies to remember that transparency builds trust, especially in times of crisis,” he said.
Whenever possible, the office recommends meetings be held at public buildings with open public participation, but when an emergency declaration prevents that, then other means are acceptable but still must allow for two-way communication.
“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,” said Arneson. “That method should be clearly explained to the public in advance of and during the meeting.”
The Sunshine Act codifies a “smattering” of rights for the public at meetings, said Melewsky, including the right to address the agency — although that agency may legislate their own policies in regard to that, the public must have a “reasonable opportunity,” according to the act — and object any time they perceive a violation of their right to speak.
“Sometimes that means a streaming event, sometimes it means a conference call and sometimes it means something else — the law does not answer that,” said Melewsky.
Under the law, Gov. Tom Wolf declared a disaster emergency, and local governments are afforded a temporary suspension of formal requirements. That allows them to forego “time-consuming procedures and formalities prescribed by law (excepting mandatory constitutional requirements).”
This allows local governments to expedite motions which unambiguously mention the disaster emergency in the performance of public work, entering into contracts, fulfilling obligations, the employment of temporary workers, the rental of equipment, the purchase of supplies and materials, the levying of taxes and the appropriation and expenditure of public funds.
“The goal of the emergency declaration is to allow more flexibility, not to do whatever they want,” said Melewsky.