HARRISBURG – The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need for certain reforms to ensure local governments can continue to hold public meetings and citizens can continue to participate in those meetings during an emergency. The Pennsylvania House Local Government Committee today in Harrisburg approved two bills introduced by local state Rep. Jerry Knowles (R-Berks/Carbon/Schuylkill) to address some of those issues.
“Citizen participation is one of the bedrock principles of our form of government,” said Knowles, who serves as chairman of the House Local Government Committee and convened today’s meeting to consider the bills. “Local governments must be able to meet during an emergency and do so in a way that enables citizens to participate in those meetings.”
Knowles’ first bill would permit local governments to hold meetings at a temporary location during an emergency if the regular meeting location is unsafe or impossible to reach. The provision would only apply if the governor or a local authority makes an official emergency declaration.
The legislation – House Bill 2253
– also would enable local governments to hold remote meetings if in-person meetings would be unsafe or impossible to reach during a declared emergency. The measure outlines policies and procedures for holding remote meetings. These would require advance notice 24 hours before the meeting, ensure the meetings comply with the state Sunshine Act and define protocols for public participation during the meeting.
“Whether local governments meet in person or online during an emergency, they still need to be open and give the public a chance to speak,” Knowles said.
Knowles’ second bill would establish additional guidelines for local governments that broadcast their meetings over the internet and also establishes rules for accepting remote public comments.
The guidelines would require the local government to broadcast the entire meeting with an exception for executive sessions. It also prohibits local governments from omitting part of the broadcast when it is made available for future viewing.
Knowles’ measure – House Bill 2428
– also would enable local governments to adopt rules enabling remote public comments in addition to in-person public comments during meetings. The bill would require local governments to postpone official action if the remote public comment process becomes unavailable.
“If local governments are going to allow people to offer remote comments, they need to meet some basic, commonsense requirements,” Knowles said. “We want to make sure people who participate online have the same ability to speak as those who attend the meeting in person.”
Knowles’ House Bills 2253 and 2428 now head to the full state House of Representatives for consideration.
Representative Jerry Knowles
Pennsylvania House of Representatives