A new Pennsylvania law protects your right to be told about issues that government officials plan to deliberate or act in public meetings.
This means that you are warned that township supervisors may accept a cell tower behind your house. Or that the county might increase your taxes. Or that your school district is preparing to lay off teachers.
Law 65 of 2021 requires government agencies to make meeting agendas available to the public at least 24 hours before a meeting. The law which took effect Aug. 29 and was sponsored by State Sen. Patrick J. Stefano, R-Fayette/Somerset/Westmoreland, also states that, with limited exceptions, including emergencies or to deal with trivial matters, an agency cannot take formal action. on an unlisted item once the agenda is finalized and made available to the public.
This update to the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act, which protects the public’s right to attend all government agency meetings where agency business is discussed or transacted, is an example of open government championed during Sunshine Week. Sponsored by the News Leaders Association, this year’s celebration highlights the importance of what access to public information means to you, your family, your community and our democracy.
The Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association (PNA) worked with Senator Stefano on the agenda legislation. The official professional membership organization related to print, digital and news media statewide, PNA seeks to promote transparency and access to government records and activities. PNA is actively working to improve the Right to Know Act, which guarantees your right to access and obtain copies of public records held by government agencies. Last year, PNA testified at three legislative hearings focusing on the problems our newspapers have had with RTKL.
The open government and freedom of information advocated by Sunshine Week and brought to life through legislative efforts like those of Senator Stefano are rooted in the beginnings of this nation. “The freedoms of a people have never been, and never will be, guaranteed when the dealings of their rulers can be hidden from them,” warned Founding Father Patrick Henry.
However, sustainable government accountability and transparency, as well as citizen participation, are not easily and absolutely achieved.
The PNA and its members continue to oppose efforts to remove public notices from mass-circulation newspapers. These notices, required by law, inform the public of proposed government actions as well as meetings for which agendas are now required. Public notices should remain in newspapers and on their websites – they are also on the state of PNA noticepublicpa.com site — to reach the widest audience.
In an article for The Conversation at the start of the pandemic, University of Arizona School of Journalism director David Cuillier described instances where citizens were kept out of public meetings, refused requests for registration and stopped obtaining information about how officials were handling the coronavirus. .
In Pennsylvania, the virtual town hall meetings that became the norm during the height of the pandemic increased attendance and participation. However, meetings conducted remotely were also hampered by technical difficulties that reduced the ability of citizens to watch and hear what was happening and to comment publicly. Some people were excluded from meetings altogether, resulting in Sunshine Act violations. Others were unable to participate due to poor or poor internet service, an issue that affects large swathes of the state and affects many demographic groups. Now, the state legislature is discussing meeting protocols initiated by COVID-19 that will be modified as the ANP works to ensure meaningful access.
The Commonwealth Disease Prevention and Control Act – enacted in 1955 to protect those who have contracted syphilis from public stigma – has long given the state Department of Health unchecked discretion to determine which infectious diseases and what community health records, if any, will be made public. . To date, no requester of public records – citizen, legislator or journalist – has circumvented the confidentiality provisions of the DPCL. This must change.
Legislation sponsored by State Rep. Craig Staats, R-Bucks, would submit disease and community health information under the DPCL to RTKL without threatening to expose private health records. The ANP strongly supports the 1893 House Bill. In the fall, the bill passed the House and is now in the Pennsylvania Senate. Access to COVID-19 or other infectious disease and public health information not only helps the public better understand, prepare for, and respond to outbreaks, it also holds the government accountable for its actions or his absence.
“Research suggests that access to government information is indeed essential for our health and well-being,” Cuillier, who is also chairman of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, wrote in The Conversation. “Studies have shown that making government information open leads to cleaner drinking water, safer restaurant food, less corruption, and greater trust in government.”
“James Hamilton, the Stanford economist, found that for every dollar spent by news organizations on investigative reporting based on public records, the public derives $287 in benefit,” Cuillier continued. “The free flow of information contributes to a better society and a better economy. It’s a smart return on investment.
Pennsylvania news organizations work tirelessly to keep their communities informed. To that end, Transparency Laws are an essential journalistic tool that promotes citizen engagement, good government, and better communities across Pennsylvania.
Brad Simpson is president of the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.