Wednesday, 01 April 2020 18:50

Richmond County boards grapple with adhering to open meetings laws amid COVID-19 restrictions

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Richmond County boards grapple with adhering to open meetings laws amid COVID-19 restrictions RO file photo

ROCKINGHAM — The restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19 across North Carolina just isn’t affecting individuals and businesses.

Local governments are also trying to figure out how to conduct business and comply with the state’s open meetings laws.

With few exceptions, all official meetings of public bodies are open to the public, according to state statute.

However, with Gov. Roy Cooper banning gatherings of more than 10 people and strongly encouraging individuals to remain six feet away from each other, it makes it nearly impossible for local governments to have room for anyone from the general public.

For example, with the Richmond County Board of Commissioners meet, there are seven commissioners, the county manager, the board clerk and the county attorney.

There’s the 10-person limit.

The county’s two largest municipal boards and the School Board face a similar dilemma.

And it’s budget time, which generally involves at least one work session.

“We’re holding the meeting in April but it’s going to be a short meeting,” Hamlet Mayor Bill Bayless said Tuesday afternoon.

He said outgoing City Manager Jonathan Blanton would present the budget and then the meeting will be adjourned.

“ ...it’s required by the state constitution that we have this meeting,” Bayless added. “We have to have this budget in place.”

County Manager Bryan Land said the commissioners meeting shouldn’t last longer than 45 minutes.

“We are limiting the (number) of departmental updates to Commissioners to minimize the agenda,” he said, adding that they weren’t requesting a pastor to present the opening prayer. “Courtroom A provides for considerable space to social distance.”

Rockingham’s City Council has yet to make a decision on how its meeting will be handled.

“We’ve never had a problem like this before,” Morris said.

On March 26, Shannon Cassell of the state Attorney General’s office gave guidance when asked if local governments can hold electronic meetings.

“Due to the unprecedented circumstances we are all faced with, and the fact that local governing bodies conducting meetings remotely is not expressly prohibited by statute, I conclude that local governments can carry out necessary meetings electronically and remain in compliance with Open Meetings Laws,” she said.

However, Cassell’s advisory letter did not address the issue of the public being at the meeting except to say “the public must be given reasonable means of listening/participating in the meeting.”

Brooks Fuller, of the N.C. Sunshine Center of the N.C. Open Government Coalition based at Elon University, offered a more specific fix.

“At a minimum, public bodies will have to provide a dial-in line for anyone wanting to ‘attend’ a meeting,” he said. “Many, but not all, public bodies have hustled to set up webcam access, which we view as best practice.”

Another open government issue involves inspection of the budgets.

Municipal budgets are supposed to be available for public inspection for 30 days before approval.

But most city halls and administration buildings have been closed to the public for at least a week now.

Fuller said the budgets should be made available digitally.

“This is certainly going to be a challenging time,” he added.