Pennsylvania Passes Senate Bill 841 to Allow Public Meetings and Notary Services via Telecommunication
On April 14, 2020, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed Senate Bill 841, which allows public entities and notaries to conduct business remotely during the statewide disaster emergency precipitated by COVID-19. The legislation is a culmination of separate State House and Senate bills to allow public entities, including counties, municipalities, and municipal authorities, to utilize telecommunication services for meetings and notary services during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Meetings via Telecommunication
Prior to the passage of Senate Bill 841, elected officials grappled with holding public meetings while observing legal requirements, such as open meetings under the Sunshine Act. Obviously, the risk of transmission of COVID-19 made it difficult to convene such meetings in person. Some public entities chose to have meetings via conference call or otherwise close meetings to the public, while others used telecommunication technology, such as Zoom, to conduct meetings virtually.
Senate Bill 841 allows the governing bodies of all Pennsylvania political subdivisions (county, township, borough, city, authority) during the statewide emergency declaration to conduct business by means of an authorized telecommunication device (e.g., one that permits at least audio communication). Such governing bodies are not required to have a quorum physically present if a quorum is otherwise established through an authorized telecommunication device.
To the extent practicable, the governing body should allow for public participation during remote meetings through an authorized telecommunication device or written comments. Written comments may be submitted via U.S. Mail or an email account designated by the public entity. Also, to the extent practicable, advance notice of the meeting must be posted on the entity’s website, or in a newspaper of general circulation, or both. Draft minutes of any public meeting called without public notice to address an issue relating to COVID-19 must be posted within 20 days or before the next regularly scheduled meeting, whichever is earlier.
Senate Bill 841 also tolls (i.e., suspends) statutory review periods for subdivision, land development, conditional use, special exception, and zoning applications, as well as any other applications that fall under the Development Extension Permit Act, for 30 days from the effective date of the legislation. The start of the tolling period is March 6, 2020 (the date of the Governor’s disaster emergency declaration), or the date of the receipt of the application if it is received during the period in which the disaster emergency declaration is in effect. The tolling period ends 30 days from the effective date of Senate Bill 841. Notice should be given to any applicant of the tolling provision and the applicant’s right to request a meeting or hearing during the period in which the disaster emergency declaration is in effect. It is entirely within the discretion of the public entity to grant such a request by the applicant, and if it does, public notice should be given at least five days prior to such a meeting by posting on the entity’s website, or by publication in a newspaper of general circulation, or both.
Remote Notary Services
Furthermore, Senate Bill 841 allows a notary public to conduct notarial acts with respect to a remotely located individual. A notary public must notify the Department of State of his/her intent to perform services for a remotely located individual, and identify the technology used, which must conform to either the communication and identity proofing technology set forth in the Department’s March 25, 2020, notice or any additional technologies recognized by the Department.
For remotely located individuals within the United States, a Pennsylvania notary may use communication technology, provided that he/she:
has personal knowledge of the individual’s identity;
has satisfactory evidence of that individual’s identity by oath or affirmation of a credible witness; or
is able to reasonably identify the individual by at least two different types of identity proofing processes or services.
Furthermore, the notary must be able to reasonably identify the record before him/her as the same as before the remotely located individual. Finally, the notary must create an audio-visual recording of the performance of the notarial act, including all interactions between the notary and the remotely located individual, and retain the recording for at least ten years.
The certificate of notarial act required by 53 Pa.C.S. §315 and the short form certificate required by 53 Pa.C.S. §316 must indicate that the notarial act was performed by means of communication technology.
The provisions relating to notary services expire automatically 60 days after termination of the Governor’s disaster emergency declaration.
Senate Bill 841 also provides potential property tax relief by authorizing taxing districts, including municipalities, to extend the discount period until August 31, 2020, and waive any fees or penalties if payment in full of property taxes is made by December 31, 2020.