Have you ever considered attending a local municipal or school board meeting to voice your opinion about a controversial topic or to watch deliberation before a decision is made?
Pennsylvania law protects your right to do just that. Under recent amendments to the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act (Open Meetings Law), you have greater rights to know what will be discussed at public meetings.
The Pennsylvania General Assembly has stated that the right of the public to be present at government meetings and to witness the deliberation, policy formulation, and decision-making process is vital to the proper functioning of a democratic republic.
Secrecy in these areas can undermine faith in government and the public’s ability to participate in a democratic society.
To that end, over the course of the last 70 years, the General Assembly has enacted various laws to attempt to protect the public’s right to receive notice of meetings and to attend and participate in meetings where decisions are made.
The current version of the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act took effect in 1987 and was re-codified in 1998. The Sunshine Act replaced previous Open Meetings Laws from 1957 and 1974.
The Sunshine Act requires that when governmental bodies deliberate or make decisions, they do so in meetings that are open to the public after reasonable notice.
Specifically, this law applies to any “Agency” (as defined in the law) including any local municipalities (i.e., Townships, Boroughs, Cities, etc.), school districts, municipal authorities, state agencies, or any board, council, commission, or committee of an Agency that can take official action or render advice.
On June 30, 2021, Governor Wolf signed into law Act 65 of 2021, which amends the Sunshine Act.
Under Act 65, an Agency is required to publish an agenda prior to a public meeting which lists all issues that may be deliberated, even if there is no anticipated vote on the issue. These new requirements have a few exceptions.
The new requirements of Act 65 became effective on August 29, 2021.
Publication of the Agenda
The new amendments are clear about the methods and timing for posting the Agency’s agenda.
If the Agency has a website, the agenda must be posted on that website at least 24 hours prior to the public meeting. In addition to the website, the Agency must post a copy of the agenda at the location of the meeting and at the primary office of the Agency and the Agency must make copies of the agenda available to any individuals attending the public meeting in person.
The agenda must include a listing of each matter of Agency business that will be or may be the subject of deliberation or official action at the public meeting.
The new amendments allow for certain exceptions to the requirements for notice and content but in very limited circumstances.
One such exception is that an Agency may take official action at a public meeting (either a regularly scheduled meeting or emergency meeting) if the issue involves a clear and present danger to life or property even if public notice was not given for that meeting.
In addition, an Agency may take official action that is not listed on the agenda if:
(a) the issue arises (or is brought to the attention of the public agency) within the 24-hour period prior to the meeting and the matter is de minimis and does not involve the expenditure of funds or entering into a contract by the public agency; or
(b) if during the public meeting, a taxpayer or resident brings an issue before the public agency that is not listed on the agenda. If the issue is brought by a taxpayer or resident, the Agency may either further research the issue for inclusion on a future agenda or, if de minimis, may take official action.
In addition, an Agency may add a matter to the agenda after the majority vote of the members of the Agency’s governing body that are present and voting during the public meeting. Before the vote, the Board must announce why the change to the Agenda is needed.
If changed, the amended agenda must be posted on the Agency’s website and at the Agency’s office no later than the first business day following the public meeting in which the agenda was amended.
Your participation in local government is vital.
Please be aware of your rights so that you can voice your opinion, participate in meetings, and choose your elected officials wisely.