July 02, 2021
Pennsylvanians will get more notice about about the topics and issues their local leaders plan to address at public meetings under a newly streamlined open records law.
Earlier this week, Gov. Tom Wolf signed the a bill requiring government agencies, school districts and local municipalities to post their meeting agendas online at least 24 hours in advance. The law takes effect in 60 days.
Meeting agendas for sessions involving a quorum of elected officials list the items and issues on which leaders are scheduled to take official actions. Items not on the agenda can be raised or maybe discussed during the public comment portion of a meeting. For example, if school board is set to discuss new COVID-19 safety protocols or a local municipality is expected to vote a property tax increase, those items would be listed on the meeting agenda posted to that governing body's website at least one day in advance of the meeting taking place.
While government agencies already are required to post a schedules of all public meetings at the start of the year, prior to this new law, Pennsylvania had no universal practice for informing what will be discussed, Melissa Melewsky, the media law attorney for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, told PennLive.
This meant some leaders posted "skeletal" agendas with little details, some published detailed agendas and others provided residents with nothing at all.
"This is to help protect against the bad actors of the local authorities," the bill's sponsor, Sen. Patrick Stefano, R-Fayette County, told PennLive.
By providing more notice of public meetings – and what will be discussed – Stefano hopes to increase transparency and accountability in local and state government. The bill was unanimously approved by members of the Senate and House.
The law amends the Sunshine Act, also known as the Open Records Laws, which outlines the public's right to be informed and present at their government's proceedings.
Under the new law, agencies cannot take official action on any item published on an agenda less than 24 hours before the meeting. There are some exceptions for things like emergency situations, the memo reads.
Yesterday, @GovernorTomWolf signed SB554, sponsored by @SenatorStefano, which amends the Sunshine Act— Open Records in PA (@OpenRecordsPA) July 1, 2021
to require state govt agencies, local municipalities, &school districts to post an agenda online no later than 24 hours before the start of a public meeting.
"As Pennsylvanians become more interested in governing, we must ensure they are provided with information about what will be considered to effectively participate in the issues that matter to them," Stefano said.
Liz Wagenseller, executive director of the Pennsylvania's Office of Open Records, said having access to agenda information is crucial to "promoting open and knowledgeable dialogue between citizens and government officials."
"The opportunity to review an agenda before a public meeting is a positive step towards increasing government accountability and citizen participation," Wagenseller said.
If an elected official is found to have willfully violated any part of the Sunshine Act, including this new law, they face criminal charges and fines.
The Office of Open Records will host a webinar on the Sunshine Act and the new agenda requirements at 10 a.m. on July 14.