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City Council Virtual Meetings Must Remain Open to Public

The challenge for many officials during this pandemic is that they are operating in largely uncharted territory in regard to Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act, which requires meetings to be open to the public.

by Frank Wilkes Lesnefsky, The Time-Tribune / March 27, 2020

(TNS) — Faced with expiring emergency declarations, boroughs are scrambling to abide by open-meetings law while keeping residents and officials safe as the coronavirus continues to spread.

Mayoral proclamations that declare states of emergency expire after seven days, requiring councils to hastily set up meetings in order to ratify and extend the legislation. The challenge for many officials, though, is that they are operating in largely uncharted territory in regard to Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act, which requires meetings to be open to the public.

The public must have access to meetings, said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.

“Public access to the meeting itself is critically important,” she said.

Archbald opted to hold a very brief, in-person meeting for borough council to extend the state of emergency Wednesday, said borough Manager Rob Turlip. The meeting started at 6 p.m. and adjourned at 6:04, he said.

Several boroughs are making the switch to virtual meetings, using the videoconferencing software GoToMeeting.

Mayfield was an early adopter of GoToMeeting, as council used it to extend the emergency declaration Monday night, said Mayor Al Chelik.

They consulted with their solicitor and determined they could use the software as long as they made an accommodation to involve the public, he said. So, they published an advertisement in The Times-Tribune and publicized the meeting on Facebook, allowing people to access it through GoToMeeting or by calling into it.

In the days following their meeting, officials from both Dickson City and Moosic reached out for advice, Chelik said.

Dickson City will use GoToMeeting to conduct its meeting today at 4 p.m., but it will not be accessible by the public, said council President Jeff Kovaleski. Instead, the borough advertised in The Times-Tribune on Thursday that the public will be able to email their comments to the borough secretary or borough manager until the time of the meeting.

Kovaleski pointed to the vandalism that shut down Scranton City Council’s meeting Tuesday and the borough’s lack of a technology person, saying he would rather handle the meeting this way instead of having to shut it down.

Borough Manager Cesare Forconi reached out to the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs for guidance, which directed him to House Bill 1564 — proposed legislation that would loosen Sunshine Act restrictions during times of emergency. Under the bill, which passed in the state House of Representatives on Wednesday, municipalities could livestream the meeting, post a recording of the meeting within 24 hours, or make a copy of the minutes available within 48 hours.

However, the Senate will not pass legislation that changes the Sunshine Act to address remote meetings, and both the state Office of Open Records and District Attorney’s Association “encourage local entities to abide by the spirit of the Sunshine Act by being as transparent as possible,” according to a bulletin from the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.

Melewsky called the threat of vandalism “a terrible example to base public policy on.”

“That’s not justification for cutting the public out of the process,” she said, later adding, “Public policy requires access and accountability, and you can’t have that if the public is not part of the process.”

Public involvement is a core tenet of democracy that doesn’t disappear in times of crisis — if anything, it is more important, she said.

Forconi said borough officials are trying to be as transparent as they can, and they are unfamiliar with the software. As they further learn about GoToMeeting, they would look to set up a way for the public to view the meeting and participate without being disruptive.

“It’s new for all of us,” he said. “We’re just not set up for it because we never had to do it in the past.”

Jane Sterling, Moosic’s borough administrator, installed GoToMeeting last week and has been practicing using the software faithfully in anticipation of using it for a meeting.

The public will have access to the meeting when the borough schedules it, and should anyone attempt to vandalize it, they will just disconnect them, she said.

“So what do you do? You deal with it,” Sterling said. “If people are that petty and that ridiculous, you deal with it.”

©2020 The Times-Tribune (Scranton, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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