For one week in March each year, media organizations across the nation focus on transparency in government. Known as “Sunshine Week,” this week offers MoreThanTheCurve.com the opportunity to share with our readers the struggles we have faced covering your local governments, when a local government hasn’t been the best at informing the public, and when a local government has gone above and beyond what is required by law in keeping the public informed. We got sidetracked last week with the sewer story, so we are extending this series of articles into this week.
One of the most important aspects of transparency is a municipality having an easy-to-use system for the public to access agendas, minutes, and recordings (video or voice) of public meetings. In addition, it is important for municipalities to push this information out to the public via email, social media, etc. Unfortunately, the law for transparency hasn’t kept up the technology.
According to OpenRecords.org, Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act requires the following when it comes to notices of meetings.
For regular public meetings, agencies (including committees) must provide at least three days advance notice prior to the first regularly scheduled meeting of the calendar or fiscal year, along with all further scheduled meetings for the remainder of the calendar or fiscal year. The notice – which must include the date, time, and location of the meetings – must be printed in a paid newspaper of general circulation. A notice must also be posted at the location(s) where the meetings are to take place.
For a special or rescheduled public meeting, agencies must provide at least 24 hours advance notice, with the notice bring printed in a paid newspaper of general circulation and posted at the location where the meeting is to take place.
Although not required by the Sunshine Act, including the purpose of a meeting, particularly a special meeting, is a good practice followed by many agencies. Some local government statutes, such as the Borough Code, require the subject to be included in special meeting notices. (See 8 Pa.C.S. §1006.)
As you can see, the minimum legal requirements are very outdated and do not utilize the Internet at all.
But as we have mentioned, we are sure all the local municipalities are doing what is legally required. The question is, with an outdated law, have the local municipalities incorporated technology, and more importantly are they actually using it.
Below we grade the four municipalities we cover.
Whitemarsh Township has the best system in place to provide access to documents online. This system allows it to upload an agenda and track changes to it. During this process, subscribers are notified all along the way via email. This is true for the Board of Supervisors and all of the appointed boards like zoning, planning, shade tree, etc.
Whitemarsh was also the first local municipality to start including all of the associated documents with its agendas. What this means is, if a developer is proposing a townhouse community, you get to see the history of documents pertaining to the proposal. The public can much better understand the agenda and the background of each agenda item due to this.
However, when it comes to documents associated with meetings, it doesn’t post all of the minutes for all of the non-supervisor level meetings, nor does it post the results of zoning hearings.
Over the past year, Whitemarsh has also stopped only uploading its meeting videos to a system on its website. They are now available on YouTube.com, which makes them much easier to watch and share.
However, when it comes to social media, Whitemarsh completely fails. We scrolled back six months and found only two mentions of public meetings.
The grade for Whitemarsh | C+
Not using social media to promote meetings and not posting all minutes dropped the township from an A-.
Borough of Conshohocken
The Borough of Conshohocken doesn’t utilize the agenda system used by Whitemarsh. The agendas are available on the website usually on Mondays before a Wednesday meeting of the borough council, but there is not a subscription-based automated system to notify you when they are available. Conshohocken does email out borough council agendas on a regular basis, but it’s not always consistent.
In regards to other agendas of appointed boards, it is completely lacking in organization and content. If you click on a link for Board & Commission Agendas on the borough’s website, it only takes you to a page with agendas for the planning commission.
If you go to the page for the zoning hearing board, notices for its hearings are at the bottom of that page. For any other appointed board, that is not the case. There are no agendas available for eight of the 10 appointed boards and the minutes of all 10 aren’t available. Note, we didn’t include the sewer authority as it has its own website, and agendas and minutes for all of its meetings are available.
Conshohocken continues to only offer its meeting videos via its website. It is functional, but there isn’t a reason to not add them to YouTube.com, which makes them more accessible. There is no video or audio of any other public meetings of appointed boards made available, except for the sewer authority which has its own YouTube.com channel.
Conshohocken recently started including background documents with its zoning hearing notices but does not do this for any other appointed boards or most importantly borough council.
In regards to social media, when it comes to borough council meetings, Conshohocken does a consistent job using Facebook to notify the public. However, for the appointed boards, it is very inconsistent and when they do provide notification of a meeting, it comes with no agenda.
The grade for Conshohocken | D-
Not having an organized system for agendas and minutes similar to Whitemarsh’s dropped Conshohocken’s score, along with not using YouTube.com and the almost complete lack of agendas and minutes for appointed boards.
Borough of West Conshohocken
We know West Conshohocken is trying to make improvements in these areas, but when a win is considered having email addresses for elected officials on its website for the first time, it still has far to go.
We also recognize that West Conshohocken has also started for the first time posting its meeting agendas on social media, but in every other way, it is completely lacking.
The grade for West Conshohocken | F-
Almost everything about West Conshohocken when it comes to these issues is unacceptable.
Plymouth Township is much like Conshohocken. While it doesn’t use the system Whitemarsh uses to organize documents, it does have a system. However, while the system is there, many of the documents are missing.
For example, there have been zoning hearings in 2021, but there is no 2021 folder under the zoning hearing board, plus every zoning folder after 2013 is completely empty. This isn’t the case when it comes to the environmental advisory board and some others. Plymouth also does not provide background documents with its agendas.
In very recent years, Plymouth did not record its council meeting on video, but now it is the best locally when it comes to recording and posting meetings. It posts what looks likes to be all of its public meetings, from council down to appointed boards, on YouTube.com. It also shares council meeting videos on Facebook.
In regards to Facebook, it is a mixed bag. The township consistently posts when there are meetings, but doesn’t include agendas.
Over the past year, we found a troubling selective use of public information by an elected official in Plymouth. Council President Chris Manero stated during a September 14th meeting that while he previously valued social media’s ability to keep the public informed, he now feels that it can lead to more misunderstanding about an issue (the video below is cued to his statement).
Just two weeks after making this statement, Manero posted about PREIT (the owner of the Plymouth Meeting Mall) deciding to seek zoning relief from the zoning hearing board in connection to a proposed apartment building. Manero and the rest of the council voted to oppose this application.
IMPORTANT INFO! In the spring, many residents attended our workshop meeting in which PREIT presented plans to develop a…Posted by Councilman Chris Manero- Plymouth Twp. Ward 2 on Thursday, October 1, 2020
Manero mainly uses his social media about events and general community information. Selectively posting about a zoning application he opposes in an effort to drive public interest is completely unfair to PREIT. Every zoning notice should be treated the same by Manero.
The grade for Plymouth Township | D+
Kudos for how it is managing and sharing videos, but that doesn’t make up for the lack of agendas and documents being available. Note that we didn’t penalize the township for Manero’s actions.
A message to the local municipalities.
As things start to reopen from the pandemic, keep your meetings online. Only go back to meeting in person, when you have the ability to hold them online and in-person successfully. The online meetings are much more informative and it is our opinion that they are much more accessible.
Why are they more accessible? You can watch and participate from home without the need for a babysitter. For those interested in a specific topic on an agenda, they can put a meeting on in the background of their computer or phone and participate when the issue of interest is discussed. Returning to the old system would be a tragedy.