The Beacon has much to say about the Southern Shores Town Council’s decision to hold a business-as-usual meeting next Tuesday, at 3:30 p.m., when business now is anything but usual, including the means of “attending” the meeting and otherwise accessing it.
But we will withhold much of our comment until later. Or, at least, we’ll try.
We will note, however, that today’s bulletin from the Dare County Emergency Management cautions people to understand that “the number of positive cases reported [in Dare County] doesn’t give the full picture of what is happening with COVID-19 in our community.” Testing here and elsewhere in the state has lagged.
DCEM’s Bulletin No. 26 encourages people to “focus more on staying at home except for essential work or needs.” That applies to elected officials, too.
North Carolina currently has 1,857 cases of COVID-19 in 83 counties; and 16 people have died because of the coronavirus, according to the bulletin and the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services.
Instead, today we ask you to read the Town Council meeting packet that was posted on the Town website yesterday. You will find it at:
https://www.southernshores-nc.gov/wp-content/uploads/minutes-agendas-newsletters/Meeting-Packet_2020-04-07.pdf (You may need to increase the page size by zooming in. We did.)
We direct you in particular to pages 10-27, which provide data for the financing of four potential beach nourishment projects that range in cost from about $14 million to $17 million; and to page 26, which is a map of the three designated municipal service districts that will pay 75 percent of the Town’s projected costs of the nourishment in tax increases.
You will note that in each case, the Town’s commercial district pays nothing.
It is unfortunate that the packet contains only beach nourishment project financial data, and not a report, which State law requires to be prepared. It is yet another inconvenience for the public to hurdle in already uncertain and stressful times when many are losing income and wealth and face hard economic decisions.
It is quite realistic to imagine that we will not have a summer tourist season.
We also ask that you read the proposed policy on pp. 57-59 about “Electronic Participation in Town Council Meetings” and “Electronic Meetings of Town Council.” It is this policy that will allow two Council members to participate in Tuesday’s meeting “remotely” and still vote. We know of no other beach town that has taken this approach.
We strongly oppose section 2(F)(iii) of the “electronic meeting” policy, which permits the Council to make only a “reasonable attempt to allow for . . . public participation for any public hearings required by law for the decisions being made during the meeting.” (We added the emphasis.)
The Council is inviting legal action with a restriction like this. The Council cannot ignore a State statute with a simple “reasonable attempt” shrug. Town councils don’t have the power to override State law.
POSSIBLE TECHNOLOGICAL FAILINGS
Last night The Beacon tuned into the live stream of the Duck Town Council’s meeting, which dealt largely with emergency concerns, and had an unexpected experience: We couldn’t hear it. There was no audio. Our experience was it didn’t work. (Please note: All five Council members were present.)
Can Mayor Tom Bennett and the Town Council guarantee that the electronic means and the telephone access they are employing to enable the public to join in their meeting next week will work? No, they can’t. The Zoom software, in particular, may pose challenges, especially to people with limited computer skills.
There is also no guarantee that the “remote” Council members will be able to hear the meeting and be heard. Good planning requires anticipation of problems.
If the Town Council is determined to go ahead with a non-essential meeting about costly budgetary business during a national public-health crisis that has yet to peak and has caused extreme anxiety for many people locally, the least it can do is a trial run of the meeting’s “openness.” (Yes, there is critical comment in the preceding sentence.)
Instead, it puts the burden on the public to “download the application from their website at Zoom.us and try it out prior to the meeting,” as stated in the Town’s meeting notice. All the Town offers is a thank you for the public’s “patience and understanding” while we navigate “these uncharted waters together.”
It is inconvenience enough that we are being asked to write and submit our comments in advance of the meeting to the Town Clerk or to rapidly type in our comments on our computer keyboards in real-time (according to Town Clerk Sheila Kane)—you know that won’t work smoothly—we also are given no assurance by the Town that our inconvenience will pay off.
We may be dealing with frozen screens, audio echoes, inaudible voices, and other technological glitches while we strain to exercise our right to participate in municipal government. We even may be dealing with security and privacy concerns because of so-called Zoombombing! Hackers and others determined to do cyber-harm are not on holiday and have always operated well from home.
The Town’s fiscal year 2020-21 budget must be finalized and approved by June 30. The last time we checked, that was three months from now. Much will be known about the COVID-19 spread in the United States and our prospects for economic recovery in just a month from now, or two. But our Town Council just can’t wait.
Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 4/2/20