It’s not something any municipal official said they expected even weeks ago.
As the number of infections from COVID-19 keeps rising, municipal governments are taking different approaches to continuing their operations – including following state transparency laws – while they heed public health experts’ admonitions to avoid holding large public gatherings until the rate of new infections is curbed.
“This really came up in the first part of March, and now we’re dealing with it,” said Washington Mayor Scott Putnam. “They don’t give you guidance on how to do this as – you’re now an elected official, deal with a pandemic.”
Like many, the city’s solution is to hold meetings remotely.
He said officials consulted their solicitor, Jack Cambest, about how to follow the state open-meetings law if they meet by teleconference. Known as the Sunshine Act, the law generally requires government agencies to deliberate on policy and other business in public.
“The guidance that we saw from our solicitor is that your agenda has to be posted on your website 24 hours in advance of the meeting, and then they can email in or call with questions on that, and we have to respond,” Putnam said. “You have to record the meeting, but there’s no recommendation that you have to live broadcast.”
Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said Washington’s plans were “somewhere in the middle” among the numerous examples she’d heard of how agencies were dealing with the crisis. She agreed the question is uncharted territory.
“The law does not address this issue at all,” Melewsky said. “It was written in 1957.”
She acknowledged that different municipalities and other agencies’ available technology varies widely. In one step toward addressing those discrepancies, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association said this week it was providing accounts with Zoom, a remote-meeting platform, to member districts.
The state Office of Open Records has issued recommendations for agencies bound by the law, and Melewsky recommended officials consult that office with questions. Melewsky said the OOR’s advice is meant to balance agency’s needs with the public’s right to access their government – a balance that’s critically important when no one knows how long the situation will continue.
“For a limited amount of time, agencies can put off things that aren’t urgent,” she said. “But if this is going to be a six-month or longer endeavor, government has to function, and there will be things that can’t afford to be put off.”
Meanwhile, North Strabane Township manager Andy Walz said supervisors are holding public meetings, but is giving people the option of listening and participating by phone to reduce the risk of spreading infection. He said the township is trying to limit business to what’s necessary.
“The doors are going to be open for our meetings,” Walz said. “They’re going to be open, but we’re also going to be giving residents the ability to call in.”
The township canceled one of supervisors’ two meetings in March, plus one of the two scheduled for April. Just one person from the public attended this month, Walz ssaid.
Meetings of the parks and recreation commission were canceled for both months. Walz wasn’t sure if the planning commission would convene for its next meeting, since so far no applications requiring its review had been submitted.
Officials in Philadelphia – Pennsylvania’s largest city – announced last week that it was suspending the deadlines for responding to requests under the state Right to Know Law.
In smaller communities, the issue hasn’t come up so far. Putnam and Walz both said their municipalities hadn’t received any open-records request since they started taking measures in light of the outbreak, like allowing non-essential staff to work from home.
On Thursday, Donora was planning to hold a council meeting in the borough building. Mayor James McDonough said earlier in the week that officials wanted to keep non-essential business off of the agenda.
The borough’s strategy is more contingent: because of concerns about infections, McDonough said he hoped the public wouldn’t attend this one.
Based on advice he said borough officials had gotten from solicitor Steve Toprani, McDonough said a council meeting would require the presence of at least four of the body’s seven members. The mayor said he wanted to limit the proceeding to bare essentials.
“We’re going to (have four members present), and we’re going to be as separate and apart as we possibly can in that room,” McDonough said. “We did ask the public – we discouraged them from attending just because of the social distancing, but I’d like to assure them there’ll be no voting on any matters unless we deem them absolutely necessary.”