The Greensboro City Council has eight public hearings on zoning matters on the agenda for the Tuesday, May 19 virtual meeting and it may not vote on any of them.
Whether votes on those public hearing items at the virtual meeting would be legal is a matter of debate.
On May 4, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a COVID-19 law that gives precise instructions on how public hearings are to be held at virtual meetings, including the requirement that people have to be allowed to comment for 24 hours after the virtual public hearing is closed.
City Attorney Charles Watts said that his interpretation of the new law would allow the City Council to vote at the meeting, as long as the City Council revisited that vote after the 24 hour extended public comment period had expired and gave councilmembers the opportunity to change their votes.
Watt’s interpretation of the law – that the City Council can vote at the meeting before the public comment period is closed – is contrary to the interpretation of the University of North Carolina School of Government, which is considered the gold standard on interpretation of North Carolina law.
The law states: “A public body may conduct any public hearing required or authorized by law during a remote meeting, and take action thereon, provided the public body allows for written comments on the subject of the public hearing to be submitted between any publication of the required notice and 24 hours after the public hearing.”
Frayda Bluestein, who is the David Lawrence distinguished professor of public law and government at the UNC School of Government, writing about this law, stated, “A consequence of this requirement is that the public body will not be able to take action on the matter immediately following the public hearing. It will have to take action at a later meeting or recess the meeting long enough to comply with the 24-hour requirement.”
The instructions on the agenda for the May 19 meeting on how to comment at the virtual public hearings do not comply with the law whether or not a vote is taken.
The official notice on how to comment at the public hearing on the agenda states, “please email email@example.com by Monday, May 18 at 12:00 p.m.”
So the city is asking that comments be submitted 29.5 hours before the meeting and the state law says that they have to be accepted at least 24 hours after the meeting.
Watts said that he would offer his legal opinion to the City Council, but the decision on whether or not to vote at the meeting would be left up to the City Council.