Mayor Nancy Vaughan and five city councilmembers met at Pomona Park on Wednesday, Dec. 21 at 9:30 a.m. to tour the Pallet shelter site and discuss the project.
City Manager Tai Jaiyeoba and Housing and Neighborhood Development Department Director Michelle Kennedy, as well as a number of other city employees, members of the media and interested parties were also present. But according to the city, it was not an “official meeting and no public notice was required.
The North Carolina Open Meetings Law NCGS 143-318.10 (d) states,
“Official meeting” means a meeting, assembly, or gathering together at any time or place or the simultaneous communication by conference telephone or other electronic means of a majority of the members of a public body for the purpose of conducting hearings, participating in deliberations, or voting upon or otherwise transacting the public business within the jurisdiction, real or apparent, of the public body. However, a social meeting or other informal assembly or gathering together of the members of a public body does not constitute an official meeting unless called or held to evade the spirit and purposes of this Article.”
Councilmembers Marikay Abuzuaiter, Nancy Hoffmann, Tammi Thurm, Hugh Holston and Zack Matheny all gathered together for remarks by Vaughan and Jaiyeoba on the Pallet shelter project. Several councilmembers also spoke briefly.
Vaughan said that she notified the media of the event and that it was not up to her to determine whether such an event was an “official meeting” and required public notice – that she left that decision up to the city attorney’s office.
When asked if this meeting of six members of the City Council, on city property to discuss a city project and tour the site constituted an “official meeting” as defined by the NC Open Meetings Law, City Attorney Chuck Watts responded by email stating, “I do not believe that there was a violation of the Open Meetings law with this gathering. There are at least two statutory bases that support that view. The broadest and simplest, in my view, is the informal assembly exception, but there is also a pretty good argument that this situation fails the definition of an “Official Meeting” under the statute.”
Watts goes into some detail with his explanation of why the meeting would not be an “official meeting” and therefore require public notice. He notes that he was not there but based on what he had been told he states, “I think it’s pretty clear that it was an ‘informal assembly or gathering’ and that it was not held to ‘evade the spirit or purpose of this Article.’”
However, the opinion of the NC School of Government on this type of meeting appears to be that it would constitute an “official meeting.”
In a post on the NC School of Government website, professor of Public Law and Government Frayda Bluestein states, “If the public body (or a majority of the public body) plans as a group to attend an event that relates to public business, even if the purpose is only to observe, notice should be provided… a reasonable interpretation of the words in the statute suggests that where a majority of a public body intentionally gathers together for a meeting involving public business, notice should be provided.”
In another post Bluestein states, “Gathering at a site visit presents a slightly different issue. Even if the members who are present at a site don’t interact, notice may nonetheless be required. The statute probably applies when a majority of the members are simply receiving information about public business as a group – even if they don’t talk about it. This appears to constitute the “transaction public business.”