On March 16, Ephrata Borough posted an update in response to the unfolding COVID-19 outbreak:
“The health, safety, and well-being of our employees, customers, vendors, and visitors are of utmost importance. To ensure that the Borough is following best practices, we are encouraging social distancing.”
But at a time when governments across the state are adapting by holding meetings online to limit the spread of the coronavirus, for Ephrata, it's business as usual.
Residents are welcome to attend council meetings. In person, following social distancing.
The borough manager and council president also attend the meetings in person, while other council members remote in. Members who participate via the online videoconferencing platform Zoom are visible to the gallery through a monitor.
But that's not an option for the public at home. They can, however, watch past meetings.
Borough Manager D. Robert Thompson said the borough is following a law that became effective last month, which gives local governments guidance on how to conduct public meetings during the coronavirus emergency.
He said he and the borough's solicitor were asked to provide council recommendations on the law and following it. One concern was that Zoom meetings can be hacked.
Although Thompson said the borough is following the law, he added that he wouldn't call the law well thought out.
Council had a work session scheduled for Monday night, May 4, and has a regular meeting scheduled May 13.
Borough resident Jim Sandoe, who regularly attends meetings, said the borough “should do everything they can to make it as easy as possible to attend meetings.”
Other health issues prevented him from attending Monday's meeting, but if it were on Zoom, he said, he would have logged on.
And, he said, he's on other Zoom meetings weekly. The platform has improved it’s ability to deal with disruptive hackers, he said.
The law Thompson referred to is Act 15, which says, “to the extent practicable,” local governments shall allow public participation through an authorized telecommunications device or by writing, either by email or through U.S. mail.
According to Erik Arneson, executive director of the state Office of Open Records, practicable is a key word.
“‘Practicable’ is a strong word, much stronger than ‘practical.’ It means that unless it is actually impossible to do so, it must be done,” he said in an email Monday.
“Public participation is central to the Sunshine Act. Agencies should do everything they can to maximize the opportunity for meaningful public participation at a remote meeting,” Arneson said.
(The office issued a Sunshine Act advisory for COVID-19 here.)
Risk of infection
Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, agreed.
Act 15 became law “to expressly permit remote public meetings because lawmakers recognized that in-person meetings create risk during the crisis,” she said.
Requiring people to leave home “increases the risk of infection, in direct contradiction to the Governor's (stay-at-home) order. Likewise, asking folks to attend a meeting in person also presents a psychological barrier that discourages public participation,” she said.
Melewsky said Zoom meeting login information is public record. But while a person could challenge a municipality to obtain the login, it's unclear whether a municipality reluctant to host a public meeting in the first place would turn the login information over in time for it to be of use.
Other governments are finding ways to accommodate the public, Melewsky said, and “I've seen a lot of good-faith efforts across the state.”
Locally, Lancaster city and Columbia council have been holding meetings on Facebook Live.