Establishing a Meeting Quorum
At the February 16, 2022, “Basics of the Sunshine Act” webinar, George Spiess, Chief of Outreach and Training, PA Office of Open Records, reviewed what constituted a meeting covered by the Sunshine Act.
In the following 3-minute audio segment from the presentation, Mr. Spiess answers my question about establishing a quorum for official township meetings. In particular, I wanted to know if members of an official committee can participate remotely – via speaker phone or Zoom – AND be counted as part of the quorum to thereby make it an official meeting. My main concern was the viability of Newtown Township's official committees, some of which are having problems establishing in-person attendance due to concerns about COVID, busy schedules, family issues, traveling restrictions, etc.
The answer to my question depends upon whether we are talking about committees of a first-class township, second-class township (e.g., Newtown Township), or borough. Listen:
Newtown Solicitor's Response
Mr. David Sander, the Newtown Township Solicitor, had a different opinion. "I acknowledge that there may be other legal opinions on this matter," said Mr. Sander. "However, my response remains the same as stated in my January 20, 2022 e-mail to you in which I opined as follows:"
|Thank you John for your continued input on this issue – I appreciate the healthy exchange of ideas! In response, please note that we are aware of the advice from PSATS and the legal basis that it relies upon. With that said, neither PSATS nor our office is aware of any court case since the pandemic that has addressed this specific question in order to give everyone a definitive answer. As solicitor, part of our role is to either minimize legal risks or to advise of potential risks associated with certain actions. With regard to whether physical quorums are required for 2nd class township meetings, absent a post-pandemic court case directly addressing this issue, it is reasonable and understandable that there will be differing views/opinions. The Board of Supervisors are certainly free to direct that meetings be held virtually with a physical space available for the public to appear and participate as suggested by PSATS. However, out of an abundance of caution, we would recommend that the Township continue to have at least a physical quorum present to the extent reasonably possible in order to avoid any questions or potential dispute over the issue. Admittedly, our legal advice on this matter is more conservative than that suggested by PSATS. Thank you for your continued input and consideration.
While I acknowledge that the above e-mail dealt with Board of Supervisors meetings, the definition of “Agency” in the Sunshine Act states in applicable part, “The body, and all committees thereof authorized by the body to take official action or render advice on matters of agency business…” Thus, all committees of the Township are covered and held to the same rules as the Board of Supervisors.
Minimize Legal Risks & Improve Committee Meetings
I informed Mr. Sander about the legal risk Supervsiors face if a resident challenged Mr. Sander's opinion. I think we can minimize this risk - and improve the ability of committees to function effectively - by trimming down the size of some committees so that achieving a quorum with ONLY those physically present is easier to achieve.
BTW. I learned at the webinar that "Fines are paid by the officials, not the agency." Mr. Sander agreed and noted that “Any member of an agency who participates in a meeting with the intent and purpose by that member of violating [the Sunshine Act] commits a summary offense and shall, upon conviction, pay a fine of [first offense between $100 and $1,000 and second and subsequent offenses between $500 and $2,000 at the discretion of the judge]”, and “An agency shall not make a payment on behalf of or reimburse a member of an agency for a fine or cost resulting from the members violation of [the Sunshine Act].”