Note: This page covers information specific to Pennsylvania. For general information concerning access to government meetings see the Access to Government Meetings section of this guide.
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. For more detailed information about Pennsylvania open meetings law, please consult the Open Meetings/Open Records Guide, prepared by the Pennsylvania Governor's Center for Local Government Services, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press's Open Government Guide: Pennsylvania.
What Meetings are Covered?
What Government Bodies Are Covered?
The Pennsylvania Sunshine Act covers all legislative and executive "agencies" at the state and local level. The term "agency," which is defined at 65 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 703(full text - scroll down), applies to multi-member bodies that perform an essential governmental function, exercise governmental authority, and take official action through the joint action of their members. 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.
What is a Meeting?
In addition to determining what government bodies are covered by the Pennsylvania open meetings law, you'll need to figure out which of their gatherings or activities constitute a "meeting" for purposes of the law (and therefore must be open to the public). 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. The term "quorum" just means a simple majority of agency members. For example, if a school board has nine members, then five members would be required for a "meeting" to take place. If the school board created a finance committee with five members, then three members of the finance committee would be required for a "meeting" of the finance committee to take place. 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. Nor does it apply to a "conference," defined as "[a]ny training program or seminar, or any session arranged by State or Federal agencies for local agencies, organized and conducted for the sole purpose of providing information to agency members on matters directly related to their official responsibilities." 65 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 703.
Agency members may participate in a meeting by telephone or video conference, and remote members count towards a quorum. See Babac v. Penn. Milk Marketing Bd., 613 A.2d 551 (Pa. 1992). Email communications among agency members likely would constitute a meeting if they contained "deliberations" about agency business, but no case has addressed this issue yet.
There are special rules for what meetings of the Pennsylvania General Assembly are covered by the open-meetings requirements. The Sunshine Act covers:
- all meetings of committees where bills are considered;
- all hearings where testimony is taken; and
- all sessions of the Pennsylvania Senate and House of Representatives.
The Pennsylvania open-meetings requirements do not apply to caucuses and meetings of any ethics committee created by Pennsylvania House or Senate rules. See 65 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 712.
What Are Your Rights?
The Pennsylvania Sunshine Act gives "the public" the right to attend the meetings of covered agencies, with exceptions for closed sessions discussed below. Pennsylvania law does not limit access to meetings to a specific category of people or a profession, such as "the traditional press." Anyone may attend. 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. See 65 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 710.1. 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." 65 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 703. 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. In addition, agencies must provide copies of the notice to the news media and interested citizens who request a copy and provide the agency with a stamped, self-addressed envelope beforehand. 65 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 709(c). 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.
Minutes and Recordings
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.
For information on your ability to use recording devices at public meetings, see Pennsylvania Recording Law.
An Exception: Closed Meetings or Sessions
The general rule is that all agency meetings must be open to the public. 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:
- personnel matters, including hiring, promoting, disciplining, or dismissing specific public employees or officers, but not including filling vacancies in any elective office;
- the negotiation or arbitration of a collective bargaining agreement;
- the purchase or lease of real estate;
- pending or imminent litigation;
- 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
- 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.
What Are Your Remedies If You Are Denied Access?
If you believe that an agency has violated your rights, you can sue in Pennsylvania state court. Under Pennsylvania law, any person may file a lawsuit for violations of the Sunshine Act. If the matter involves a state-level agency, you must sue in the Commonwealth Court. If a matter involves local-level agencies, you must sue in the Court of Common Pleas. If you file a lawsuit and win, you can obtain a court order requiring that a meeting or meetings be made open to the public in the future, that an agency satisfy its notice obligations, or that it provide access to minutes improperly withheld. If you wish to challenge past agency action, you must file your lawsuit within thirty days of any violation that took place at an open meeting, or within thirty days of discovering an action that took place in an executive session (but in no circumstances after more than a year from the date of the session). If you go to court and win, the court may order the losing agency to pay your attorneys' fees if it finds that the agency willfully violated the Sunshine Act. On the other hand, if you go to court and lose, the court may order you to pay the agency's attorneys' fees if it finds that your lawsuit was frivolous. This would not happen unless your legal claim were utterly and obviously without any merit.
In the event that you are denied access to a meeting or class of meetings, you probably want to pursue an informal resolution before filing a lawsuit, which ordinarily is a costly and slow solution. You should contact the agency in question and inform it that you believe your rights have been violated and that you are willing to bring a legal action. You should submit your complaint in writing whenever possible. If the agency continues to deny your request for access, you should consider filing a lawsuit. There may be public interest organizations that would be willing to take on your case for free or for a reduced rate. Please see the Finding Legal Help section for details on finding legal representation.