Agency 'work session' must be open to the public


From the PNA Legal Hotline

By Melissa Melewsky, Media Law Counsel
Pennsylvania Newspaper Association

Q: A local agency plans to conduct a work session this week for board members to discuss ways to fill budget shortfalls. The work session has not been advertised and the public will not be allowed to attend. The agency says because the gathering is a “work session” and no votes will take place, it doesn’t have to be public. Is that right?

A: No. It doesn’t matter what terminology an agency uses to describe a gathering. If a quorum of an agency is deliberating agency business, the Sunshine Act applies, even if the agency doesn’t vote.

The general rule of the Sunshine Act is: Anytime a quorum deliberates agency business or takes official action, it must do so at a public meeting unless an exception applies. Deliberation of agency business is broadly defined as the discussion of agency business held for the purpose of making a decision.

Discussions about budget shortfalls are certainly discussions of agency business and they are being held so that the agency can decide how to address those shortfalls (even if the final decision won’t be made at that meeting). Accordingly, this is deliberation of agency business, as defined by the Sunshine Act, and must occur at an advertised, public meeting unless an exception applies.

There are a number of limited exceptions to the law but there is no blanket exception that allows an agency to meet privately for a “work session” or when there is no vote scheduled to be taken. There is an exception that allows boards of auditors to meet privately for working sessions, but this exception does not apply to agencies other than boards of auditors.

Pennsylvania Newspaper Association attorneys provide member newspapers with advice on government access issues.