This post was authored by Timothy Horstmann and Frank Lavery, III. Tim is a member of the Public Finance and Government Services Group at McNees. Frank is a Law Clerk with McNees. Frank is currently a student at the University of Notre Dame Law School and expects to earn his J.D. in May of 2022.
A bill recently introduced in the General Assembly would impose new requirements on Pennsylvania municipalities for holding governmental meetings. Senate Bill 554, which was recently passed on a unanimous 49-0 vote in the Pennsylvania Senate, would amend the Pennsylvania Sunshine Law to require political subdivisions to make available in advance to the public the proposed agenda for any governmental meeting. Senate Bill 554 now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration, and its strong bipartisan support indicates passage may be likely.
The Sunshine Act, 65 Pa.C.S. §701 et seq., is a Pennsylvania Statute intended to improve transparency in the operations of state and local governmental agencies (including political subdivisions, such as counties, cities, townships, boroughs, and authorities) within the Commonwealth. Currently, the Sunshine Act requires that political subdivisions notify the public of when and where a meeting will be held but does not impose any obligation on the part of political subdivisions to inform the public of the business to be considered at such meeting. That may soon change.
Senate Bill 554, if passed, would mandate that political subdivisions inform the public as to what business will be ‘on the table’ at any given meeting. In short, the new additions to the Act would require political subdivisions to make available to the public the agenda for an upcoming meeting.
Senate Bill 554 would amend Section 709 of the Sunshine Act (relating to the giving of public notice) to require every political subdivision do all of the following:
- Post the meeting agenda on the political subdivision’s website at least 24 hours prior to a meeting, which agenda must include a list of each matter that may be considered at the meeting;
- Physically post the agenda at the meeting location, as well as at the principal office of the political subdivision;
- Distribute copies of the agenda to all members of the public in attendance.
These new rules would not apply for conference or work sessions, or executive sessions. Additionally, Senate Bill 544 lays out under what circumstances a political subdivision may depart from the agenda and consider other business not previously disclosed to the public in the agenda:
- Emergency Situations: a political subdivision may take official action on any matter relating to a real or potential emergency that involves “a real and present danger to life or property” regardless of whether consideration of the matter was included in an agenda.
- New Situations: a political subdivision may take official action on a matter if it arose or was brought to the attention of the political subdivision within the 24-hour period before the meeting.
- Trivial Situations: a political subdivision may take official action on a matter if it is trivial in nature and does not involve the expenditure of funds or the formation of a contract.
- Additions by Majority Vote: a political subdivision may take official action on a matter if a majority of the governing body formally approves the amendment of the agenda to include the additional matter. The reasons for amending the agenda must be announced at the meeting, and the agenda as so amended must be posted on the political subdivision’s website, and at the principal office location of the subdivision/agency no later than the first business day after the meeting.
Senate Bill 544 if passed undoubtedly would increase public awareness as to what specific business will be discussed at any given meeting of a political subdivision or agency. Political subdivisions would have to carefully plan their meeting agendas. The inclusion of the exceptions outlined above will provide needed flexibility to the new mandates, however. Time will tell whether Senate Bill 554 receives a favorable vote in the House, but in light of its strong bipartisan support in the Senate, it appears likely that political subdivisions that do not already post their meeting agendas will have to update their practices to comply with the new mandate.