Did South Whitehall Township violate the Open Meetings Law (commonly known as the Sunshine Act) in the last Board of Commissioners’ meeting?
First, let me say that virtual government meetings are difficult to conduct and manage. As a matter of fact, pre-Covid, many municipalities didn’t even allow call-in commissioner or councilperson participation or voting, so there was little experience to draw from when this became necessary. As a result, there are certainly technological and training difficulties in this new environment that may prevent a smooth meeting experience for our elected officials and the public. But . . . the law is the law, and extra effort must be exercised to ensure the public is allowed the opportunity to participate in the affairs that affect their lives and livelihoods.
On February 17, 2021, the South Whitehall Board of Commissioners held a regularly scheduled meeting with over 100 virtual attendees, many of whom came with something to say about the Public Works work stoppage. During the course of the meeting, someone in the administration changed the sign-in names of most of the attendees to “anonymous”. The reason behind this may have been because some individuals signed in with pseudonyms with derogatory references to the township manager. Simultaneously, the “Chat” function where residents indicate their desire to speak was shut off, again possibly because of comments entered into the system. As a result, public comment was blocked on this, or any, issue from over 100 attendees. A reasonable, responsible and legal response to a problem?
From the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records:
The Sunshine Act gives the public the right to comment on issues “that are or may be before the board.” Agencies are permitted to establish rules to oversee public comment by, for example, limiting time for each commenter. But there is no allowance to discourage or prevent comment altogether, or the citizens’ right to hear those comments.
Did South Whitehall Township by their actions to protect a township official and/or the Board of Commissioners from direct questions or comments violate the Open Meetings Law? I think they might have. And I hope the board moves quickly to adopt and communicate Rules for Remote Participation & Etiquette, as both the Planning Commission and the Zoning Hearing Board have already done.