Attending public meetings is a big part of any municipal law practitioner’s routine, and, if I’m being honest, one of my favorite parts of my job. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, members of my group, myself included, frequently attended County, township and borough meetings. While I understand that a township board of supervisors meeting might not be everyone’s idea of a fun Thursday night, I like watching government at work. In today’s world, how many spaces exist where citizens can engage directly with their elected officials?
Of course, when COVID-19 cases began to appear in Pennsylvania, all of this changed. Businesses (including ours) started to adapt to social distancing requirements by replacing in-person meetings with audio and video conference calls. Municipalities, however, bound by the Sunshine Act and other open meeting requirements, faced a unique set of challenges. How could boards, councils and committees continue to conduct business and ensure public participation while protecting the health and safety of residents?
At first, many meetings were canceled. But as the days turned to weeks, public meetings started to come back online (both literally and figuratively). To date, I have participated in two remote public meetings (one via conference call and the other via Zoom) with more scheduled in the coming weeks. While not without the occasional technological hiccup, these meetings demonstrate that municipalities can make decisions on issues of public importance while engaging the public and respecting social distancing requirements.
Senate Bill 841, which was signed into law by Governor Wolf on April 20, validates what, to a large extent, are already existing practices for conducting remote public meetings. The new legislation (among other things) expressly allows public meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic to be conducted by conference or video call. Public participation, which must be permitted to the extent practical, can be addressed in a variety of ways. Some municipalities allow residents to participate directly in meetings, while others invite them to submit comments on agenda items in advance of the meeting. To ensure public engagement, notice of the meeting, the topics to be discussed, and the technology that will be used must be provided at least 5 days prior to the meeting either on the municipality’s website or in a newspaper of general circulation. Finally, Senate Bill 841 addresses problematic language in the Borough Code and the Third Class City Code that requires a majority of members of a council to be physically present at a meeting place to constitute a quorum by explicitly permitting a quorum to be reached by participation in a meeting via conference call.
While I wouldn’t trade the good old days of municipal meetings for video calls, I am excited and encouraged by the innovative and creative ways that local governments have adapted to the new normal. At the end of the day, municipal meetings are still bringing citizens together to discuss issues of importance, but for now, we are meeting in virtual spaces rather than physical ones.