The Pennsylvania Sunshine Act gives the public the right to attend the meetings of a large number of government bodies at the state and local level in Pennsylvania. The law also entitles you to notice of these meetings and gives you the ability to inspect and copy meeting minutes.
The Sunshine Act covers all legislative and executive "agencies" at the state and local level. This includes the Pennsylvania General Assembly and its committees, state agencies in the executive branch, political subdivisions (including all their constituent boards and commissions), and municipal authorities (such as city councils). The statute defines a "political subdivision" as "[a]ny county, city, borough, incorporated town, township, school district, intermediate unit, vocational school district or county institution district." In addition, the term "agency" includes school boards and the boards of public colleges and universities. Finally, the term also applies to committees created by the above-described agencies that are authorized to take official action or render advice on matters of agency business.
Under the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act, a gathering must have three characteristics in order to count as a "meeting." First, the meeting must be prearranged. Second, a quorum of agency members must attend. Third, the purpose of the gathering must be to discuss or deliberate on agency business or take official action. The phrase "official action" means establishing agency policy, making a decision on a matter of agency business, and voting on any motion, proposal, resolution, regulation, ordinance, report or order. The Sunshine Act does not apply to a purely social or ceremonial event unrelated to the agency's business.
The Pennsylvania Sunshine Act gives "the public" the right to attend the meetings of covered agencies, with exceptions for closed session. In addition to the right to attend meetings, you also have a limited right to comment. Most local-level boards and councils must afford the public a right to comment before official action is taken. Agencies may adopt reasonable rules for the comment period to maintain an orderly process, including by imposing time limits.
The right to attend meetings is not necessarily meaningful without proper notice of those meetings. To address this issue, Pennsylvania law requires agencies to give advance notice of their meetings. The Pennsylvania Sunshine Act distinguishes between two types of meetings: (1) regularly scheduled meetings; and (2) special meetings. A "special meeting" is defined as "a meeting scheduled by an agency after the agency's regular schedule of meetings has been established." Agencies must publish notice of their regularly scheduled meetings once a year, at least three days before the first meeting. The notice must include the place, date, and time of the first meeting and the schedule for the remaining meetings. Agencies must publish the notice in a newspaper of general circulation and post it in a prominent location at the principal office of the agency or the building in which the meeting is to be held. For special meetings, agencies must publish notice in a newspaper of general circulation and post notice (as described above) at least twenty-four hours before the meeting. Agencies may call emergency meetings without notice under limited circumstances.
The Pennsylvania Sunshine Act requires agencies to record minutes of their open meetings and to make them available to the public for inspection and copying. An audio or video recording of a meeting does not satisfy this requirement.
If an agency wants to hold a closed or "executive" session, it must identify a specific statutory exemption. Under the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act, an agency may hold a closed session when it addresses one of six subject-area exemptions found in 65 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 708(a) or when it is dealing with certain confidential or privileged deliberations or actions, as provided in 65 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 716. The six primary exemptions are for meetings dealing with the following topics: 1) personnel matters, including hiring, promoting, disciplining, or dismissing specific public employees or officers, but not including filling vacancies in any elective office; 2) the negotiation or arbitration of a collective bargaining agreement; 3) the purchase or lease of real estate; 4) pending or imminent litigation; 5) matters of agency business which, if conducted in public, would violate a lawful privilege or lead to the disclosure of information or confidentiality protected by law, including matters related to the initiation and conduct of investigations of possible or certain violations of the law and quasi-judicial deliberations; and 6) matters of academic admission or standings (for committees of a board or council of trustees of a public university or college or the Board of Governors of the state system of higher education only).
These exemptions make it permissible for an agency to close a portion of a meeting; they do not require it to do so. If an agency chooses to hold a closed session, it must announce a specific reason for doing so on the record at an open meeting immediately prior or subsequent to the executive session. An agency may only take final action on matters discussed during an executive session at an open meeting.