Pa. schools, municipal boards don't have to tell you what they're talking about — and some don't

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch
State Rep. Aaron Bernstine

Only a handful of York County boroughs and townships regularly post agendas online for the public to view ahead of a public meeting, but posting agendas may soon be a legal requirement thanks to a proposed amendment to the state's Sunshine Act.

At present, there's no statewide requirement for agencies — such as local governments, school boards and other public bodies — to even produce an agenda, said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.

And that makes it difficult for members of the public to decide whether to attend a public meeting, she added.

"They can’t make that determination if they don’t know what’s on the schedule, and the agenda is a really simple way to help people figure out what’s going on and whether they need to attend," Melewsky said.

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives unanimously approved a bill Tuesday, Jan. 14, that would require all public bodies, if they have a website, to post an itemized agenda to the organization's website at least 24 hours before the start of a scheduled public meeting.

State Rep. Aaron Bernstine, R-Ellwood City, was the primary sponsor of the legislation, and he worked with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association to develop the bill.

Under the amendment, public bodies would not be able to take official action on any item not listed on the agenda, with a few exceptions.

If there were an emergency that required immediate action to protect residents from "a clear and present danger to life or property," a public body would be permitted to take action without public notice, should Bernstine's bill become law.

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If something were brought to the board or council's attention in the 24 hours before a meeting, or if a resident or taxpayer brought up an issue during a meeting, the board or council could take official action on that item if it didn't involve authorizing an expenditure or entering a contract.

Board or council members would also be free to add something to the agenda, but any changes must be announced at the meeting, and a majority of the governing body must vote to approve the addition to the agenda.

If a board or council does change an agenda, the updated agenda must be made publicly available and posted online the next day.

"It’s not about catching people that are doing the wrong thing," Bernstine said of his amendment to the Sunshine Act. "It’s really about creating an environment that they don’t even think of doing the wrong thing, knowing that it will come into the light of day."

Holly Lubart, director of government affairs for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said the organization has been advocating for this legislation for several years.

"We’re hopeful since it was a unanimous vote in the House that the Senate will take this bill up for consideration," Lubart said.

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Some municipalities in York County already follow the best practices of posting agendas in advance of meetings, and staying up to date on the most recent meeting minutes.

Springettsbury Township is one of them.

"I think there’s an expectation that when you’re doing the public’s business, that they have a right to know, and it’s always easier to work with the public when there’s a level of trust," said Benjamin Marchant, Springettsbury Township manager. "That trust is established by clear and open communication about the operations of the government."

The township usually posts meeting agendas on the website about one week ahead of a public meeting, Marchant said, and minutes of those meetings are posted once they've been drafted and approved by the Board of Supervisors.

Springettsbury Township is a large municipality with an estimated population of nearly 27,000 people and a 2020 budget of $16 million.

The website is thorough and well-maintained, and the township can afford to pay a contractor about $5,500 a year to make that happen, Marchant said.

But having a web presence for residents to find basic information about their town is not necessarily cost prohibitive, Marchant said, based on his experience working in other municipalities.

"Even in a very small community or borough, a simple website with simple PDF documents can accomplish the same objective," he said.

Other municipalities are still catching up to best practices.

Heidelberg Township has a Facebook page where residents can post comments, but there's no address for the township's administrative building, no phone number and no information about meetings or ordinances.

A screenshot of North Hopewell Township's website captured Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020, where no minutes nor agendas were available.

Winterstown has a website with the borough address, phone number and basic information about outside services such as trash collection and police protection.

But the Winterstown website has no information about the dates or times of public meetings and no links to meeting minutes or agendas.

North Hopewell Township's website is more comprehensive than the previous two municipalities. It has an address and contact information for the township office, links with information about the township's departments and a list of upcoming meeting dates.

The township doesn't have meeting minutes or agendas posted, but secretary and treasurer Kerrie Ebaugh said the township will soon begin regularly posting minutes to the website and that residents with busy schedules appreciate having that information.

"I think people just don’t have time to come to the meetings, but they’d still like to know what’s going on in their community," Ebaugh said.

Melewsky did point out that in Pennsylvania, wide swaths of the population don't have access to the internet, which is why the Sunshine Act specifies that a public body is only required to post information online if it has a website.

Representatives from Heidelberg Township and Winterstown could not be reached for comment.

School districts: Public information practices vary across York County's 16 public school districts, but all must follow the Sunshine Act.

When reached last week before the House approved the Sunshine Act amendment, Jeffrey Mummert, business manager for South Western School District, said the district sometimes doesn't have a choice about making last-minute changes to a meeting agenda.

"Things happen, and we have to be able to respond to it," he said.

Mummert said additions to the agenda could be anything from a legal issue to a timing issue or a monetary issue.

At the South Western and Northern York County school districts, officials said they aim to have agendas uploaded on the Friday before the upcoming meeting.

But those goals are not always met, said Northern York County spokeswoman Vangie Unti, who confirmed the agenda for the Thursday, Dec. 19, board meeting was not posted until the day before.

"Sometimes there are items that are currently in process or under review or are provided at the last minute," she said, which can sometimes delay the posting of the agenda.

State Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township, said Thursday she would support the legislation in the Senate and voted in favor of a similar House bill a couple of years ago when she was a state representative.

Phillips-Hill said it's time to bring the Sunshine Act into the 21st century and that, particularly when it comes to school boards, busy families need to know ahead of time whether there's something on the agenda that warrants their attendance.

"If something comes up on that school board agenda that’s of particular concern to them, then they can make arrangements to be present when that conversation is had," she said.

State Sen. Mike Regan, R-Dillsburg, would also support the Sunshine Act amendment, in its current form, if it came up for a vote in the Senate, said Bruce McLanahan, Regan's chief of staff.

"Transparency is a hallmark of his (Regan's) legislative platform and has been since he was sworn into office," McLanahan said.

Incoming state Sen. Dave Arnold, a Republican from Lebanon County, said Thursday he hadn't had a chance to review the amendment yet but that from a general standpoint, he supports transparency and openness in government.

Arnold won Tuesday's special election to fill the vacant seat in the state's 48th Senate District.

State Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, did not respond to a request for comment.

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Reporter Lindsay VanAsdalan contributed to this story.