Oct. 21—VERNON TOWNSHIP — After maintaining a ban on in-person attendance at its monthly board meetings since May, Meadville Area Water Authority (MAWA) allowed the Tribune to attend its meeting Wednesday.
No change in the authority's prohibition on in-person attendance had been announced, but officials at the meeting made no attempt to stop attendance. In fact, outside of a brief greeting from one board member, they had little reaction at all to the presence of a member of the public that previously had been barred.
Authority Chairman Tim Groves was asked just after the meeting ended if this meant the prohibition on in-person attendance had been lifted.
"I guess," he said, drawing laughs from other meeting participants.
After the meeting, authority leaders reiterated their previously stated belief that barring the public was allowed under rules for public meetings that were modified due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Attorney Christopher Ferry explained that while the emergency disaster declaration that enabled those modifications was ended in June, a compromise between the Pennsylvania Legislature and Gov. Tom Wolf led to an extension of those adaptations and many others through Sept. 30. The Tribune sent a reporter Wednesday to see if the authority was, in fact, lifting its prohibition.
Ferry's justification of the prohibition appeared to be a reference to Act 21, which extended a wide variety of suspensions and waivers related to state laws that had been eased during the disaster declaration.
Rules requiring in-person participation by the public in public meetings were not among those affected by Act 21, according to Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.
"Virtual public meetings are no longer authorized," she said in an email to the Tribune. Provisions for virtual meetings expired when the General Assembly ended the COVID-19 disaster declaration, Melewsky continued, and prohibiting in-person participation could constitute a violation of the state's Sunshine Act, with first offenses potentially bringing fines of up to $1,000.
Groves reiterated on Wednesday that the decision to require members of the public to participate remotely had been made in the name of safety.
In explaining the prohibition in May, MAWA Project Manager Bob Harrington noted the small size of the authority's conference room, which he estimated at about 12 by 24 feet.
Groves reiterated that concern as he sat at one end of the table in the center of the room following the meeting Wednesday.
"I just don't know what we would do if we had a lot of people at a meeting," he said with a glance toward the half-dozen or so chairs squeezed in at several points around the perimeter of the room.
Melewsky said that while she understood the concern, the solution was to find a location capable of accommodating more people, not to exclude people.
Other city authorities have done just that, meeting in the City Building's large conference room, approximately 2.3 miles from the MAWA headquarters on Rogers Ferry Road. No other city authorities or boards have prohibited in-person public participation since returning to in-person meetings.
While the authority decided to exclude people rather than find an alternate location, it hasn't always succeeded in keeping the public out. In June, due to what Harrington described as faulty communication on his part, a member of the public could be seen on the videoconference entering with little fanfare just after the monthly meeting began. The unidentified woman stayed about 30 minutes, departing as the meeting was wrapping up.
At the time, Harrington explained the policy violation as due in large part to the unexpected nature of the woman's attendance. He also stated that the ban on in-person public participation remained in effect.
Groves and Harrington have also suggested over recent months that given the low rate of public participation in authority meetings, offering remote-only participation was not only safe and convenient, it might even enable increased participation. But participation has remained low: since May, the unidentified June attendee and Tribune reporters have been the only members of the public to participate.
Even if remote participation is a useful alternative under the best of circumstances, in-person participation "simply can't be replaced by talking heads on a screen," Melewsky said.
And MAWA's remote access, which allows participants to join by internet or by phone, has not always taken place under the best circumstances. Audio of some participants has consistently been weak and on multiple occasions in recent months the video feed from the authority's conference room has been unavailable.
"It's just not the same," Melewsky said of virtual meetings. "Sharing space with your elected officials and appointed officials is an important part of the process. If that's not happening there needs to be a really good reason why, and I'm not aware of one."
Mike Crowley can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.