Local governments face transparency challenges during coronavirus
Thursday, March 19, 2020 | 2:29 PM
As large governing entities like Allegheny County Council and Pittsburgh City Council hold virtual or teleconference meetings to vote on legislation in order to curb the spread of covid-19, smaller communities face a challenge.
How do these councils and boards avoid meeting in groups larger than 10 while simultaneously following the Sunshine Act, the state law that governs how governments conduct business meetings?
Eric Arneson, Executive Director of the Office of Open Records, said in a web post on the agency’s website that teleconferencing, holding webinars or other electronic methods are appropriate for most agencies during emergency declarations.
“However, any agency taking that step must provide a reasonably accessible method for the public to participate and comment … pursuant to the Sunshine Act,” he said. “That method should be clearly explained to the public in advance of and during the meeting.”
Arneson said OOR also recommends agencies record such electronic or virtual meetings and make them available to view or listen online.
“Agencies should bear in mind that transparency builds trust, especially in times of crisis,” Arneson said.
Allegheny County Council plans to hold its monthly meeting March 24 at the City-County Building, which has been closed because of the coronavirus. Its members have been encouraged to call in to the meeting instead of being there in person. Meanwhile, the public has also been encouraged to watch the live-streamed meeting online and to submit questions and comments online and through email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
“To adhere to the CDC guidelines, the total capacity of the room for the public will be limited to 10 to ensure social distancing,” said a county news release.
Pittsburgh City Council held a voting meeting Tuesday with two people at council chambers, the rest called in. The meeting was broadcast live and the public was able to post questions and comments through an email.
In Plum Borough, council held a non-voting meeting via Microsoft Teams, an online communication conferencing tool, as a sort of pilot.
“These times call for innovation,” said Council President Dave Odom. “We’re really trying to push the envelope when it comes to trying to do something outside the box.”
The problem Plum has encountered is making a virtual meeting like Tuesday’s interactive with the public and available to watch live.
“We’re really trying to implement a method of interaction. That’s the part we are not sure of,” he said, adding the borough’s online contact form could work.
“We’re looking into a few options. It’ll take a few days to know if those are viable or not,” Odom said.
Plum’s next meeting is scheduled for April 13.
The Gateway school board held a voting meeting March 17 in the high school’s Large Group Instruction room to avoid close face-to-face interaction. The meeting was closed to the public and some officials called in to the meeting.
Public questions were submitted online and the meeting was viewable on Comcast channel 13, Verizon FIOS channel 44 and the district’s YouTube channel.
Despite a glitch that made the meeting’s video component non-viewable, members of the public interacted and the audio is available online.
Business has carried on – in a truncated fashion – in Monroeville. The municipality held a Planning Commission meeting March 18, where the commission voted on one agenda item. There were nine people in attendance.
“If we had a huge docket, we’d have to do it in a staggered fashion, where we have people waiting out in the hallway and only four members of the planning commission present,” said Monroeville Manager Tim Little.
Looking ahead for council meetings, Little said the agenda setting meeting scheduled for April 9 could be canceled. To prevent too many people from attending the voting meeting on April 13, Little said some agenda items that don’t need to be voted on could be postponed.
“If we can push anything to May, we will push it to May. But nothing has been determined,” Little said.
Penn Hills declared an emergency on March 16, which allows the municipality to make quicker purchases of items needed during crises and continue day-to-day operations without lengthy voting meetings.
Manager Scott Andrejchak said the March 16 council meeting that was canceled due to the coronavirus will not be made up with an emergency meeting. And April’s meeting is still up in the air.
The municipality’s council meetings have been recorded, with the ability to live-stream via YouTube, since last June. But the municipality has yet to try holding such a meeting with a crowd smaller than 10 people. Nevertheless, Andrejchak is confident moving forward.
“I don’t know what April will look like,” he said. “But we’re prepared to act in any event. Whether it be with a virtual meeting or in person.”
The next council meeting in Penn Hills is scheduled for April 20.
Statewide, there are 185 cases of covid-19 as of Thursday. There are a total of 18 cases in Allegheny County, three in Washington County and two cases each in Beaver and Westmoreland counties.
So far, one person in Pennsylvania has died.
State Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said Thursday that 1,608 patients have tested negative for the virus.