3/19/20: BREAKING NEWS: TOWN COUNCIL SCHEDULES RUSHED MEETING TOMORROW TO CONSIDER POLICY ALLOWING MEETINGS BY ELECTRONIC MEANS; PUBLIC ACCESS IS PARAMOUNT

In an extraordinary move, Southern Shores Mayor Tom Bennett has called a special meeting of the Town Council tomorrow at 3 p.m. in the Pitts Center in order to cancel the previously scheduled March 24 budget workshop session and to consider adopting a policy that would allow the Town Council to meet electronically.

In a notice posted to the Town website today, but dated and signed by the Mayor yesterday, the purpose of the special meeting is further described as being to consider amending the Town Council’s Rules of Procedure so that either the Mayor alone or any two Council members can cancel or reschedule a meeting during a declared emergency.

See notice of special meeting here: https://www.southernshores-nc.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Special-Mtg-Notice-TOSS-03182020.pdf

That the Mayor would schedule an in-person meeting during the 15-day period that President Trump has asked all citizens to avoid social gatherings of 10 people or more is shocking to The Beacon. It conveys to us a lack of respect for the seriousness of the situation we are all facing and a sense of privilege—that Southern Shores does not have to play by the same rules. See the President’s guidelines, “15 Days to Slow the Spread,” at https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/03.16.20_coronavirus-guidance_8.5x11_315PM.pdf.

Last Sunday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that meetings of more than 50 people be canceled or postponed during the next eight weeks. The next day, President Trump issued a recommendation that the number be lowered to 10—until March 31.

This inconsistency between the nation’s highest public-health agency and the White House coronavirus task force is enough to give us pause. Just what does the scientific evidence show?

For weeks, public-health officials have been recommending “social distancing,” encouraging people to maintain a distance of six feet between themselves and others. The transmission of the new coronavirus is not fully understood yet. Any gathering of people should be viewed as an opportunity for viral transmission to occur.

To be safe, we believe municipalities should observe the task force’s recommendations about COVID-19 protection at least until the end of the month—at which time, all recommendations can be reevaluated in light of all new evidence. That the Southern Shores Town Council has chosen to disregard the task force’s advice strikes The Beacon as imprudent and arrogant. Although the health risk to meeting attendees may appear slight to the Mayor, it nonetheless exists.

N.C. law already permits a public body to hold a meeting by “telephone or videoconferencing,” as long as it provides a location and a way for the public to listen to the meeting. The public body may charge each member of the public a fee (maximum of $25) to defray the cost of providing a location and equipment. See N.C. Gen. Stat. sec. 143-318.13(a).

That there is no mention in the Mayor’s notice of how the Town Council would preserve public access to its meetings—which is required by State law—if it were to conduct them electronically, concerns The Beacon. A meeting of elected officials that does not allow the public access and a meaningful opportunity to comment cannot be held.

Of course, the Town Council knows this, and, yet, it is meeting tomorrow to formulate and adopt a policy for electronic meetings in a declared emergency without first hearing from the public. It is highly unlikely that many residents/property owners will attend tomorrow’s meeting. Not only have they been given inadequate notice–one day on the website, at best–they have been placed in the untenable position of possibly risking exposure to the coronavirus if they do attend.

Rather than rush to judgment tomorrow, the Town Council should plan thoughtfully how the Town can solicit opinions from residents/property owners about meetings by electronic means and investigate the available enabling technology, and then offer residents a choice. (What are the Council’s options in light of N.C. Gen. Stat. sec. 143-318.13(a)? The Council cannot contravene N.C. statute.)

If the past is any indication, however, The Beacon suspects that the policy will already have been written by 3 p.m. tomorrow and will be read into the public record as a motion that will be unanimously approved.

The Beacon believes the Mayor is making an error in judgment in calling this special meeting. We also believe it is premature to consider holding Town Council meetings that are neither urgent nor critical by electronic means.

The Beacon further believes that the Mayor, who unilaterally declares a state of emergency,  should not be given unilateral authority to cancel or reschedule a Town Council meeting during an emergency. This represents too much consolidated power for a Mayor in a council-manager form of government. If the authority to cancel or reschedule a meeting is delegated to two Council members, their decision should only be effective with the consent of the Town Manager.

The postponement of the March 24 workshop meeting is an inconvenience. The business on its agenda will hold.

The Beacon reached out to Geri Sullivan, who is on our editorial board and is a former candidate for Town Council, about the possibility of the Council holding meetings remotely. Ms. Sullivan emailed the following thoughtful response:

“I think there could be instances, e.g., emergency meetings to deal with issues during this health crisis via electronic meetings.  However, certain items, like budget approval, tax rate increases, non-emergency budget amendments or project approvals, etc., or changes to ordinances should not be addressed during these meetings.

“We should realize that this current health crisis could go on for several months, and our town may have to deal with a number of issues that can’t wait for an open public meeting.  Since the town needs to come up with a budget for spending, could they not provide for a three-month budget at the current spending level and extend on a month-to- month basis until it is safe to resume open public meetings?

“Also, is there a way people could dial in (or view online) these meetings while they are occurring?  And provide access to an online recording available, just like we broadcast current meetings?  And also the public should be notified in advance of such meetings, so they can provide written comments and/or phone in comments during the meeting.”

Ms. Sullivan concludes that a policy for using electronic meetings should be defined to cover only special emergency circumstances, and not normal operations.

Please let us know what you think.

Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 3/19/20

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