The members of the Guilford County Board of Elections may have all broken the law last week.
On Monday, August 8, the Board of Elections held a meeting to discuss early voting times and locations in Guilford County, and, due to the tremendous noise and disruptive behavior from the crowd in the commissioners meeting room of the Old Guilford County Court House, the three Board of Elections members and elections staff conducted their meeting privately at the dais.
One county official called it “mob rule rather than democracy in action” after the crowd caused the board to huddle together and conduct its business, craft a motion and take a vote without anyone hearing the discussion – calling into question whether it qualified as a public meeting, something required by law.
Amanda Martin, co-editor of the North Carolina Media Law Handbook and general counsel to the NC Press Association, when asked about the implications of the meeting and the way it was conducted, said that, in her legal opinion, it would not pass muster as an open meeting called for by state statutes.
“I would say, no, that’s not compliant with the open meetings law,” Martin said. “Obviously, the intention and the end result of the law is for the public to see and hear what’s in the meeting. I can understand the frustration of the board members in this case, but they would need to figure out a way that the meeting could be conducted in accordance with the open meetings law.”
Martin said there are some strategies for conducting an open meeting in a hectic situation. For instance, she said, one option would be to adjourn and reconvene under better conditions. She said another option might have been to move the meeting to a smaller room, which would allow more control, and the board could also use random ticketing for admittance if necessary.
According to Martin, state court has determined that there’s no requirement that a public meeting be held in a room large enough to accommodate everyone who wants to attend. She said a school redistricting case in Wake County was very heated and resulted in a lawsuit, and, in a 2011 ruling on that case, Garlock vs. Wake County Board of Education, the NC Court of Appeals found in favor of the school board after citizens brought action against the board of education alleging violations of the state’s open meetings law. Some of the citizens were excluded from meetings when the school board adopted a ticketing policy for “meetings involving matters of intense public interest.” The appellate court found it was within the law to move to a smaller room and issue tickets.
“The court said that ticketing was acceptable,” she said.
Martin said that, if a court determines a meeting that should have been open was not, the court has the option of negating actions taken at that meeting.
“The court can set aside what was done,” Martin said.
The North Carolina General Statutes covering the open meetings law, states, “Whereas the public bodies that administer the legislative, policy-making, quasi-judicial, administrative, and advisory functions of North Carolina and its political subdivisions exist solely to conduct the people’s business, it is the public policy of North Carolina that the hearings, deliberations, and actions of these bodies be conducted openly.”
There are some exceptions for holding closed meetings and keeping discussions private, such as meetings to discuss a personnel matter, to consult with an attorney or to talk about incentives for a business considering relocation to the area. However, there is no exception for boisterous crowds.
Guilford County Board of Elections Member Don Wendelken said he was immensely taken aback by the actions of the audience members on August 8, and he added that the kind of conduct displayed has no place in a public meeting where a board is attempting to deliberate in the open in good faith.
“Instead of being good listeners, they reacted in a way that was totally unacceptable for a committee meeting,” Wendelken said of the crowd, which was unlike any that Guilford County officials can remember.
“To me it showed a real lack of respect for those who are actually trying to do what is right,” he added. “There’s a time and place for certain things to occur.”
He also said the verbal outrage from the crowd was unjustified given that, at the time the audience members began shouting, the board had barely begun to talk about a decision. In the end, the board’s ruling was largely in favor of what the crowd was asking for: There was no reduction in the number of early voting sites or days.
“I was very disappointed in how the citizens reacted to our meeting – even before they knew how we were going to vote or what type of discussion we were going to have,” Wendelken said. “They had it in their minds that we were going to do one thing and one thing only. For some reason, certain groups come together and create an atmosphere of chaos that prevents the board from doing their business.”
Wendelken said he got his first few words out and the crowd began to boo and jeer and make it impossible to hear the board members. He also said the audience members walked into the room with a predetermined misconception about what the board would do.
“It didn’t allow them to hear the Paul Harvey moment – the rest of the story,” he said.
Wendelken said that, speaking for himself, at least, the board’s decision wasn’t influenced by intimidation.
“I have a pretty thick skin,” he said, adding that the hostile attitude of the crowd had “no impact” on his decision. He said his only goal is to try to do what’s right so he can sleep with a clear conscience each night. He also said he didn’t think those tactics were a very good way to attempt to sway a board.
“You can get more done with cooperation rather than making it impossible for the board to conduct its business,” he said.
There is always the option of throwing citizens out of a meeting, but that generally happens after the board’s chair has warned an audience member and, in this case, there were several pleas from board members and security for the crowd to contain itself, but never any warnings.
North Carolina law regarding “Disruptions of official meetings,” states, “A person who willfully interrupts, disturbs, or disrupts an official meeting and who, upon being directed to leave the meeting by the presiding officer, willfully refuses to leave the meeting is guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor.”
As it was, the disruptions didn’t even allow the person recording the meeting to hear what was going on – and state law requires that every public body “keep full and accurate minutes of all official meetings.”
According to Guilford County Board of Elections Director Charlie Collicutt, the minutes for the Monday, August 8 meeting were being taken by Guilford County Elections Administrator Sherrie Brewer. However, at times during the meeting, the only people who could hear anything were the board members themselves.
Martin said that accurate minutes of the deliberations are a requirement of the law and added that this was another “troubling” aspect from the standpoint of the open meetings law.
Some have said that the strange lack of composure of the crowd may have been due to some of them being visitors from outside of Guilford County, since there has been a concerted effort by some advocacy groups to make early voting rules a high value target in this election.
As an example of that effort, a few days after Guilford County’s chaotic August 8 meeting, Doug Wilson, the deputy executive director of the NC Democratic Party, sent out a call for action based on the US 4th Circuit Court of Appeals’ recent ruling that struck down North Carolina’s voter ID law. The email cites the decision and states, “Striking down the law, however, allowed all 100 Republican-controlled county boards of elections to reopen decisions on when and where to offer early voting. Some may try to offer the bare minimum required by law, which could be as little as only a single location at the elections office, during business hours. Some Republican elections board members are already talking about severely cutting access to early voting. And we only have until August 19th before these boards have to adopt a plan. We need your help to make sure these boards know that we want full access to early voting in every county!”
The email instructs people to attend county board of elections meetings and to ask for expanded early voting opportunities, including weekends, and the email includes links to elections boards across the state as well as their meeting schedules. It instructs readers to encourage boards to offer “convenient locations for your county, like college campuses.”
It also states, “Forward this email to your family, friends, and neighbors – ask them to attend their county board meetings in order to protect early voting.”
Wendelken said the tactics of disruption seem to be more and more common these days, and he said examples of recent protests in Raleigh where people “holler and blow horns” and are “loud and unruly” were examples of the trend. He said he wasn’t sure what forces were at play to create the situation on August 8.
“I don’t know how many of the people were from Guilford County,” he said.
Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne said this week that though he wasn’t at the August 8 meeting, he had been informed of what went on. He said it was his understanding that there was an attempt to read the motion into an open microphone, and he said that, when it comes to public meetings law, it isn’t a problem if not everyone is able to hear all of the meeting.
“There’s nothing that says everybody there that wants to hear has to be able to hear,” he said.
He said it’s hard not to consider it a public meeting “if the mic’s on and the motions were read out loud and the vote was taken in public.”
“Once you say it out loud with the public watching, I think the bar is low as for what would make a public meeting,” Payne said. “I don’t disagree that it was apparently chaotic.”
He also pointed out that, once the vote was taken and the board could quiet the crowd, the board informed the public what had been voted on.
Payne said there were practical concerns with any legal judgment that said a public board could not take action in those unusual circumstances.
“As a policy concern, I have an issue with the idea that people can shut down the county’s business at any time just by making enough noise,” Payne said.
He also said it was something of a paradox to argue that one might make a meeting more public by moving it to a smaller room and requiring tickets for admission.
Payne said there were other options a board could take in this situation. He said a board could, for instance, clear the room and announce that the meeting isn’t going to take place until order is restored. He also said that, in cases where county officials know ahead of time that a meeting will be loud and contentious, they could make preparations such as putting motions in written form and projecting them onto a big screen so people could at least read what was being debated.
Payne said that, in the case of the August 8 meeting, the size and intensity of the crowd was not anticipated.
“This kind of took people by surprise,” he said.
Guilford County Security Director Jeff Fowler, who began working in Guilford County security in 1999, said it was the most intense public meeting in the county he and his staff have had to handle.
“It was the loudest,” Fowler said of the meeting, adding that at one point in the pandemonium a reporter tried to interview him.
He said he remembers a meeting about eight years ago that was the largest in terms of crowd – budget meeting in which the backlog meeting room, but it was not nearly as heated.
When asked if staff considered throwing some of the audience out, he said, “When it’s two or three people, that’s an option, but when it’s 250 …”
He also said that the directive to throw someone out usually comes from the dais.
“The meeting is generally controlled by the chairperson and we go by their direction,” Fowler said. “But if it gets physical then we take action.”
He was asked about the times people have been thrown out of meetings in the past in Guilford County.
“It doesn’t happen,” he said. “I don’t remember ever having to throw someone out.”
In 1998, a year before Fowler took a job with the county, the late E.H. Hennis, a major critic of the county commissioners, was arrested when he held up a fake bomb and made threatening remarks to the commissioners at a meeting. Hennis was later barred from attending commissioner meetings but he returned regularly once the time of the ban was up.
Fowler said that on August 8, there was a gradual influx of people. But when staff opened up the balcony before the meeting he knew something unusual was going on.
“We don’t open up the balcony until the room is full,” he said, “and we haven’t had to open the balcony all year.”