There have been a lot of questions in the past two months as to how public bodies should treat members of the media given the state’s “open” meetings law and the fact that there’s a pandemic going on.
Now, a new state law is answering some of those questions.
The law, which was passed by the state legislature on Monday, May 4, addresses some of the questions media and government officials have had over the last two months, and, this week, Amanda Martin, the attorney who is general counsel to the NC Press Association, released a statement regarding the implications of the new law for reporters.
Martin wrote in a message to reporters across North Carolina that there have been a lot of different approaches taken by government bodies ever since the pandemic hit.
“Public bodies made up rules as they went along about how they would attempt to accommodate the Open Meetings Law and the Governor’s Stay-at-Home Order, requiring social distancing,” Martin wrote.
She also stated that advice to local governments from the legal experts at the NC School of Government in Chapel Hill weren’t always followed over the last two months.
“Sometimes bodies followed guidance offered by UNC’s School of Government, sometimes not. That catch-as-catch-can approach now has been replaced by Session Law 2020-3.”
Under the new law, any notice of a remote meeting must instruct members of the public how to access the meeting as it occurs. Ordinarily, regular meetings have to be announced only once – however if the first notice doesn’t tell the public how to access the meeting remotely, the body holding the meeting needs to provide a new notice that includes those details.
Martin wrote: “So long as there is a state of emergency, public bodies are permitted to conduct ‘remote meetings,’ which include meeting by ‘conference telephone, conference video, or other electronic means.’ The law took effect May 4, though there is ‘forgiveness’ for remote meetings that took place between March 10, 2020, and the law taking effect.”
In Guilford County, county government and the towns and cities have each largely had their own take on how to handle the media in the age of the coronavirus pandemic. Guilford County, for instance, has cancelled many smaller meetings, excluded the media entirely from some meetings, and let the media in at others, but not members of the general public.
At the last Board of Commissioners meeting, press was allowed in as long as the reporters had a reservation and passed the security check that involved a number of questions to determine if he or she was at risk of carrying COVID-19. County commissioners didn’t have to answer those same questions.
The Board of Commissioners regular meetings are being broadcast on cable and being live-streamed on the internet, and the work sessions are being live-streamed on the internet.
Public hearings – often a part of local government meetings – can be very tricky to pull off when the public isn’t present. Martin notes that, in order to comply with any statutory requirements for public hearings, the public body must allow for written comments to be submitted any time between notice of the meeting and 24 hours following the meeting.
“This means that any required votes must be taken at another meeting at least 24 hours later,” she writes.
Also, Martin points out, meetings that are live-streamed must be streamed in real-time, and, if a meeting is a “conference call” meeting, dial-in information is to be provided to the public. Martin also notes that, under the law, any members of the public body who participate in the meeting, but can’t physically be seen by viewers, must identify themselves when the roll is taken, when participating in the discussion and when voting.
She also points out that all documents under consideration at the meeting are public records unless there’s a “specific, statutory exemption from the public records law.”
The method for the remote meeting also must allow members to hear other members, as well as anyone else who might address the public body.
In addition, all votes by the body must be roll call votes.