No need for new open meetings law under coronavirus emergency, state senator says
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Municipal boards and other public agencies that hold meetings remotely to comply with social distancing measures are not in violation of the state open meetings law as long as the public is able to participate, the state's watch dog agency confirmed Thursday.
Gov. Tom Wolf's coronavirus disaster declaration allows for public agencies to waive some of the formal requirements of the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act that would be detrimental to the fight against the virus, said Erik Arneson, director of the state Office of Open Records.
In this case, the requirement that a quorum of a board be physically together during meetings has been difficult to meet without compromising efforts to slow the spread of the virus.
"The whole point of the emergency declaration is to keep people physically distant from each other," Arneson said. "So, I think that a common sense reading of the law would be that in that kind of an emergency, that the physical quorum could be waived and they could do it by video conference or teleconference."
State Rep. Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, sponsored an amendment that clarifies the physical quorum exception under emergency circumstances.
Arneson said he applauds the House for taking up the amendment, which is attached to an unrelated bill, but he said the legislation isn't necessary because the governor's disaster declaration already provides for the exception.
The bill, HB 1564, was first introduced last year to address the tax assessment valuations of factory-built modular homes.
StateSen. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, said there's no way to fast-track the bill, which would need to be taken up in the Senate's Local Government and Appropriations committees and then brought to the full Senate floor.
"There’s things in the bill that there’s disagreement on. Certain industries might push back," he said. "These are things that we have to get feedback on."
Martin said the governor's emergency declaration already provides public agencies with the flexibility to deliberate and take action remotely, as long as the deliberations and actions remain within the scope of day-to-day operations and emergency response.
As of Sunday, Pennsylvania had nearly 3,400 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus, and 38 deaths, according to the state Department of Health.
Wolf and the Health Department have undertaken a major social-distancing campaign to slow the rate of infection to prevent a surge in hospitalizations that could overwhelm the state's health systems.
Municipal governments are doing their part to protect themselves and their constituents.
The Hanover Borough Council held its first remote meeting Wednesday using Zoom videoconferencing software.
The program allows members of the public to also sign into the meeting virtually and alert officials if they have a question during the meeting or need to make a public comment.
"I don’t know how we would have done it years ago," said Nan Dunford, Hanover borough manager.
If the coronavirus pandemic had hit the United States before the time of easily accessible video conferencing, Dunford said, there likely would have been an inclination for local governments to continue meeting out of necessity to keep the borough operating, even though it would be unwise from a public health standpoint.
Zoom is a great solution to that problem, she said.
"It sets up a different dynamic, but you know, we learn from that as well," Dunford said.
The York County Board of Commissioners always livestreams its meetings on Facebook and White Rose Community Television, a service that has become even more valuable now that the county administrative center is closed to the public.
Members of the public who have questions or comments for the commissioners during public meetings can submit them via the comments section on the Facebook stream or by calling 717-771-4333, county spokesman Mark Walters said.
Other municipalities have taken a different approach.
The West York Borough Council took action on all of its urgent business and payment of bills in March and then canceled its April meetings, said borough manager Shawn Mauck.
"We took care of pretty much any business that we needed to take care of," he said.
In case social distancing measures have to be extended beyond April, Mauck said the borough is looking into using videoconferencing.
In the meantime, the borough council can hold an emergency meeting if absolutely necessary, he said.