Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering how municipalities can continue using virtual meeting programs like Zoom when needed for public meetings.
In Pennsylvania, each type of municipality—boroughs, cities, and townships—have different codes or laws. Most codes require that, for a board to hold a meeting, it must have a quorum of board members physically present. Outside of emergency orders, fully virtual meetings are not allowed. The exception is the second class township code which is silent on whether members must be physically present.
A quorum is the minimum number of board members required to hold a meeting. For example, a board of seven may need at least four members present in order to meet or make decisions. If only three people show up in person, the meeting is canceled. As long as a quorum is physically present, other members could appear virtually.
Before COVID-19, county commissioners, township boards, and city and borough councils held public meetings with entire boards in one room. A few routinely broadcast their meetings on the internet or local television. Elected officials interacted with the public present at meetings but not with online or television viewers.
But with Microsoft Teams or Zoom meetings, board members each broadcast from their home computer and members of the public also use their own computers to interact with the board. Everyone is looking at the computer screen, elected officials and general public viewers are all seen, and the public can electronically raise their hands to participate in public comment time.
More members of the public have been participating in local government public meetings held virtually, according to testimony on Monday in Harrisburg during a joint hearing of the House and Senate Local Government Committees. But now that Governor Tom Wolf’s emergency COVID-19 orders are over, fully virtual municipal public meetings have ended and public participation has gone down.
When COVID-19 prevented meeting in person, municipalities were sent scrambling to find a way to continue conducting business, according to Amy Sturges who testified on behalf of the Pennsylvania Municipal League and the Pennsylvania Association of Township Commissioners. The result was Act 15 of 2020, passed by the General Assembly, which removed the in-person requirement for quorums for the duration of Wolf’s emergency order.
Once the emergency order ended, the municipal codes went back into effect.
“We are asking for the flexibilities at the local level to establish a quorum another way if necessary,” Sturges told The Epoch Times in a phone interview. “The public should be aware of when that would be. But [we] are not suggesting that governing bodies never meet in person again. Rather than leave the codes as they are, let’s get our codes updated so the next time they can’t be present in a room, they can meet virtually without a full physical quorum.”
Sometimes, the need for a virtual meeting may be regional. Recent flooding in Pennsylvania closed roads in some regions. With the flexibility to meet virtually, boards could have safely met without encountering the roads.
“There are certainly benefits to this virtual thing, but it’s always much more meaningful when you can sit across the table from someone,” Republican State Rep. Jerry Knowles told The Epoch Times. “People back home did not elect me to stay at home. We can’t let this remote stuff become the norm.”
Knowles is chairman of the local government committee and he sees benefits to both kinds of meetings under different circumstances.
“When people are elected to public office, they are expected to attend the meetings,” Knowles said. “I don’t want people hiding behind a virtual meeting. But if they are put in a position where they can only participate virtually, they can do it from home. Otherwise, they have a responsibility to sit there, eye to eye, and listen to constituents.”
Newly proposed legislation, Senate Bill 794 and House Bill 1318, call for removing the in-person requirement for borough quorums, but it does not address meeting requirements for cities or townships.