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Sunshine on Government Keeps You Informed
Written by Brad Simpson - President, Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association
2022-03-09

            A new Pennsylvania law protects your right to be informed about what issues government officials plan to deliberate or act upon at public meetings.

            That means you get a heads up that municipal officials might OK a cellphone tower behind your house. Or that the county could raise your taxes. Or that your school district is preparing to lay off teachers.

            Act 65 of 2021 requires government agencies to make meeting agendas available to the public at least 24 hours before a meeting. The, law that took effect Aug. 29 and was sponsored by state Sen. Patrick J. Stefano (R-Fayette/Somerset/Westmoreland), also says that with exceptions including emergencies or to take up insignificant matters, an agency may not take official action on an item not listed once the agenda has been finalized and available to the public.

            This update to the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act, which protects the public's right to attend all meetings of government agencies where agency business is discussed or acted upon, is an example of the open government championed during Sunshine Week. Sponsored by the News Leaders Association, this year's observance March 13-19 also underscores the importance of what access to public information means to you, to your family, to your community, and to our democracy.

            PNA and its members continue to oppose legislative efforts to remove public notices from newspapers of general circulation. These notices, required by law, inform the public of proposed government actions as well as meetings for which agendas are now required. Public notices must remain in newspapers and on their websites – they are also on PNA's statewide publicnoticepa.com site -- to reach the widest audience.

            In Pennsylvania, virtual public meetings that became the norm in the height of the pandemic increased attendance and participation. However, remotely conducted meetings were also bedeviled by technical difficulties that diminished citizens' ability to watch and hear what was happening and to publicly comment. Some people were completely shut out of meetings, which resulted in Sunshine Act violations. Others could not participate due to lack of, or deficient, internet service, an issue that plagues wide swaths of the state and cuts across many demographics. Now the state Legislature is discussing which of the COVID-19-launched meeting protocols will be changed as PNA works to ensure meaningful access.

            "Research suggests that access to government information is indeed essential for our health and well-being,'' Cuillier, who is also president of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, wrote in The Conversation piece. "Studies have shown that making government information open leads to cleaner drinking watersafer restaurant foodless corruption, and more confidence in government."

            "James Hamilton, the Stanford economist, has found that for every $1 spent by news organizations on public records-based investigative reporting, the public derives $287 in benefits,'' Cuillier continued. "The free flow of information makes for a better society and a better economy. It's a smart return on investment.''

            Pennsylvania news organizations work tirelessly to keep their communities informed. To that end, transparency laws are an essential journalistic tool that fosters citizen engagement, good government, and better communities across Pennsylvania.


 

 

 

 

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