Quick quiz: Is a government agency in Pennsylvania required to release agendas prior to public meetings?
If you answered yes – surprise! That’s incorrect.
Most public boards have agendas ready in advance, and some do make them available.
However, that is neither a requirement of the law, nor a universal practice.
But a bill in the General Assembly would change that.
House Bill 1069 – an amendment to the state Sunshine Act – was introduced last year by Aaron Bernstine, a western Pennsylvania Republican. HB 1069 would mandate that government agencies make public their meeting agendas 24 hours in advance.
This would go beyond basic public notice of the scheduled meeting to provide a list of all planned actions – on a publicly accessible website and at the agency office – to give folks affected by the action time to respond before a vote.
Agencies would also be required to make agendas available to anyone who attends a meeting.
Holly Lubart, director of government affairs for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, told a conference call of editors that the bill had passed the full House and also the Senate State Government Committee unanimously and would go before the full Senate.
“It seems that all parties are in agreement on this,” Lubart said. “We would like to get this to the governor’s desk.
“It would be a nice win (for transparency).”
Lubart noted that the bill would require 24 hours notice for any changes to an agenda.
There would be exceptions to the “no action without advance notice” language:
• “Emergency” action concerning “business relating to a real or potential emergency involving a clear and present danger to life or property,” the amended bill reads.
• A matter that is brought to the attention of the organization within 24 hours that does not involve the “expenditure of funds or entering into a contract.”
• A matter raised during the meeting by a member of the public. Action can be taken to refer that concern to staff or address the issue at a future meeting. Or, a decision can be made on the spot if the concern does not involve spending money or entering into a contract.
• If the agency votes to add an item to the agenda – which seems like a potential loophole, but we’ll see.
Bernstine has degrees from both Penn State and the University of Pittsburgh, which suggests he might understand the balance necessary to maneuver Pennsylvania politics.
His 10th district includes parts of Beaver, Butler and Lawrence counties north of Pittsburgh.
When he proposed the legislation, Bernstine echoed language in the original Sunshine Act from 1998, that “secrecy in public affairs undermines the faith of the public in government and the public’s effectiveness in fulfilling its role in a democratic society.”
Bernstine said: “In today’s hectic, fast-paced world, it is important that we give our constituents the tools they need to participate in government in a meaningful way.
“If citizens and taxpayers can access information regarding a public meeting agenda prior to the meeting, then they will know whether issues of importance or concern are to be addressed at the meeting.”
The proposed change was originally introduced as HB1531 during the 2017-18 legislative session.
“This is a bill we’ve been working on for several years,” Lubart said.
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Quick quiz 2: Can a court make a ruling about a document without actually reading the document?
Apparently yes, and that’s not good – says the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which reversed a Commonwealth Court decision concerning the social media policy of the Pennsylvania State Police.
The ACLU filed a Right-To-Know Request seeking a complete and unredacted copy of the PSP’s policy.
What came back was a copy with enough redacted content that only about two pages of a nine-page document could be read. The redactions were made because, the PSP argued, to provide all information would risk safety of the public. The Commonwealth Court sided with the PSP without even looking at the document to see if a public safety concern was warranted.
PNA media law counsel Melissa Melewsky said the ruling could have broader implications than this one case, allowing for an “in camera” review of documents in such cases – out of public view but literally in view of judges – not just relying on an agency’s affidavit making the claim.
The Commonwealth Court had essentially ruled that “you don’t need to look at the records. You can just take our word for it,” Melewsky said.
“And that’s garbage. The Commonwealth Court never looked at the records. They just took the state police’s word for it. That’s not the way the courts or accountability are supposed to work.”
The ruling didn’t ultimately settle the matter, just vacated the Commonwealth Court’s decision to back the PSP – which can keep fighting to keep its social media policy hidden from the public.