Thursday, September 23, 2021

Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering allowing virtual meeting options for local governance

Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering how municipalities can continue to use virtual meeting programs such as Zoom if they are needed for public meetings.

In Pennsylvania, each type of municipality—town, city, and township—has different codes or laws. Most codes require that, in order to hold a board meeting, a quorum of board members must be physically present. Outside of emergency orders, completely virtual meetings are not permitted. The exception is the Class II township code which is silent on whether members must be physically present.

Quorum is the minimum number of board members required to hold a meeting. For example, a board of seven may require the presence of at least four members to meet or make decisions. If only three people appear in person, the meeting is cancelled. As long as the quorum is physically present, other members may be present virtually.

Before COVID-19, county commissioners, township boards and city and city councils held public meetings with the entire board in one room. Some broadcast their meetings regularly on the Internet or on local television. Elected officials interacted with the public present at the meetings, but not with online or television audiences.

But with Microsoft Teams or Zoom Meetings, each member of the board broadcasts from their home computer and members of the public also use their computer to interact with the board. Everyone is watching at computer screens, elected officials and the general public are all watching, and the public can electronically raise their hands to participate in public commentary times.

More members of the public are attending local government public meetings held virtually, according to testimony Monday in Harrisburg during joint hearings of House and Senate local government committees. But now that Governor Tom Wolf’s emergency COVID-19 order has expired, entirely virtual municipal public meetings have ended and public participation has diminished.

When COVID-19 prevented in-person meetings, municipalities had to find a way to continue conducting business, according to Amy Sturgess, who testified on behalf of the Pennsylvania Municipal League and the Pennsylvania Association of Township Commissioners. was sent to scuffle. The result was Act 15 of 2020, passed by the General Assembly, which removed the personal requirement for a quorum for the duration of Wolf’s emergency order.

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Once the emergency order expired, municipal codes went into effect again.

“We’re asking for the flexibility locally to set up quorum in another way, if necessary,” Sturgess told The Epoch Times in a phone interview. “The public should know when that will happen. But [we] Not suggesting that the Governing Body never meet in person again. Instead of leaving the code as it is, let’s get our codes updated so that the next time they’re not in a room, they can meet without a completely physical quorum.”

Sometimes, the need for a virtual meeting may be regional. Recent floods in Pennsylvania have closed roads in some areas. With the flexibility to meet virtually, boards could meet safely without having to face roads.

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“There are definitely benefits to this virtual thing, but it’s always more meaningful when you can sit across the table from someone,” Republican State Rep. Jerry Knowles told The Epoch Times. “The people back home did not choose me to stay at home. We can’t let this remote stuff become the norm. “

Knowles is the chairman of the local government committee and sees the benefits of both types of meetings in different situations.

“When people are elected to public office, they are expected to attend meetings,” Knowles said. “I don’t want people to hide behind virtual meetings. But if they are put in a situation where they can only participate virtually, they can do it from home. Otherwise, it is their responsibility to sit there, see eye to eye, and listen to the constituents. “

The newly proposed laws, Senate Bill 794 and House Bill 1318, call for the removal of the individual requirement for city councils, but it does not address the requirements for cities or townships.

Beth Brelje is an investigative journalist covering the most interesting and sometimes elusive news from Pennsylvania politics, the courts and the Commonwealth. Send him your story ideas:

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This News Originally From – The Epoch Times

Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering allowing virtual meeting options for local governance
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