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Should Chester City be handling City Council meetings differently during coronavirus?


The Sunshine Act and the Coronavirus (COVID-19)

11 MARCH 2020 / ERIK ARNESON

The Office of Open Records has issued the following advisory regarding Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act and the coronavirus (COVID-19).

Last updated March 18 at 11:34 a.m.

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The Sunshine Act is clear that public meetings should be held at public buildings with open public participation whenever possible. If an official emergency declaration prevents that from happening, a meeting via teleconference, webinar, or other electronic method that allows for two-way communication is permissible in most circumstances. (Some agencies may be governed by laws which add requirements beyond those included in the Sunshine Act.)

However, any agency taking that step must provide a reasonably accessible method for the public to participate and comment pursuant to Section 710.1 of the Sunshine Act. That method should be clearly explained to the public in advance of and during the meeting.

Further, the Office of Open Records strongly recommends that any agency holding such a meeting record the meeting and proactively make the recording available (preferably online) so that a full and complete record of the meeting is available to the public.

35 Pa.C.S. § 7501(d) allows agencies under a “declaration of disaster emergency” (here’s the March 6 disaster emergency declaration signed by Governor Wolf and information about the declaration) to suspend the need to comply with certain “formal requirements.” In context, any such suspensions must be related to the emergency.

Agencies should bear in mind that transparency builds trust, especially in times of crisis.

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If and when events warrant any update to this advice, it will be posted here. Agencies are also welcome to contact the OOR with any questions (using the OOR contact form is the best way to reach us at this time, as we are all working remotely).

Information about the coronavirus (COVID-19) is available from the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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