On April 14, 2020, the Pennsylvania House unanimously adopted Senate Bill 841 which provides regulations governing various topics during the COVID-19 outbreak, including how municipal entities may conduct public meetings and hearings. The bill previously passed the Senate unanimously and has been forwarded to the governor for adoption.
Municipal entities now have the option of conducting remote meetings
Given the federal and state social distancing guidelines in effect, and the differing codes governing how a particular municipal entity may conduct public meetings, Senate Bill 841 gives municipal entities the option of conducting purely remote meetings. The bill specifically authorizes municipal entities to “conduct public hearings, meetings, proceedings or other business through the use of an authorized telecommunications device.” An authorized telecommunications device is simply “any device which permits, at a minimum, audio communication between individuals.” As such, in addition to the Zoom and other video conferencing meetings which are occurring, a simple conference call where all parties can hear and communicate with each other will suffice. In addition, the bill permits a quorum of a municipal board to be established via the authorized telecommunication device and does not require the physical presence of board members at a meeting location.
Advance notice is still required
Except for exigent circumstances, a municipal entity is required to give advance notice of a meeting. Such notice must be posted on the entity’s website, in an advertisement in a newspaper of general circulation or both. The notice must include the date, time, technology to be used, and information for the public to participate. The bill provides no timeframes for when such advance notice must be given, but it is sound practice to follow the requirements of the Sunshine Act and the applicable municipal code for advertising meetings, where possible. In the event advance notice is not provided to the public as a result of exigent circumstances, draft minutes of the meeting must be posted within 20 days after the meeting or before the next regularly scheduled meeting, whichever is earlier.
Public participation is still required for public hearings
Where practicable, public participation is required for a public meeting, hearing or proceeding through an authorized telecommunications device or the prior submission of written comments to a board. Written comments may be submitted to the municipal entity’s office or to a designated e-mail account. One thing to consider, if an executive session is needed, while various conferencing platforms allow the host to remove participants, this is not the case for all platforms. If an executive session is held as part of a regular meeting, hearing or proceeding open to the public, you will need to make sure to confirm those participating in such executive session to make sure unauthorized people are not participating.
In addition to the above, the bill also addresses how municipal entities can conduct meetings related to land development applications, plats, plan submissions, appeals or curative amendment challenges. A municipal entity may not consider any such submissions during a public meeting unless notice to the public and interested parties has been provided at least five days in advance of the meeting. The notice must be posted in an advertisement in a newspaper of general circulation, on a municipal entity’s website, or both.
Tolling of applicable timeframes governing decisions, approvals and more.
The bill grants municipal entities an automatic tolling of the applicable timeframes governing decisions, approvals, hearing dates, and similar required actions during the pendency of the COVID-19 pandemic. Such timeframes will not resume until thirty days after the lifting of the emergency declaration by the governor. Municipal entities are required to provide written notice to applicants regarding the tolling of the applicable timeframes and of an applicants’ ability to request a hearing, meeting or proceeding before a municipal entity. To that end, within thirty days, an applicant may request a meeting, hearing or proceeding governing its application, plan, plat, submission, appeal or curative amendment challenge while the governor’s emergency order is still in effect. The municipal entity has sole discretion on whether to proceed with such request. If a municipal entity does authorize such request, notice of such meeting, hearing or proceeding is required. However, the applicant and each party receiving actual notice of the proceeding waives any challenge to the proceedings under the Sunshine Act or any other provision of law that governs notice, conduct or participation in a meeting or proceeding.
There are a lot of moving pieces to Senate Bill 841, including the governor signing the bill into law. We will stay on top of this development and advise you when and if it should become the law.