The coronavirus pandemic has thrown a lot of things into disarray, and one of those things is the state’s open meetings law.
On the one hand, North Carolina General Statutes state very clearly that citizens have a right to attend local government meetings, however, it gives those same governments exceptional powers to protect the public in a time of emergency.
The battle of those contradictory principles is now playing out in Summerfield – where a Tuesday, March 31 Town Council meeting has been called, but the public won’t be allowed to attend.
When the Guilford County Board of Commissioners banned the public from its meetings earlier this month, that raised eyebrows, and now the move by the Summerfield Town Council is causing the same type of consternation in that community.
Summerfield Mayor BJ Barnes – who understands state law well since he was the sheriff of Guilford County for about a quarter of a century – said this week that it’s necessary to hold the meeting and he added that the town is allowed to have no more than 10 people at any gathering.
Barnes said the purpose of the meeting is to decide whether the town should cancel its Founders Day celebration – a very popular event for the community.
“We will hold the attendance to 10 and we will not be there long,” Barnes said. “It will be shown live on Facebook. I suspect many future meetings will be canceled.”
Barnes said the current virus regulations do mean that there will be no audience members at the meeting. The only attendees will be the councilmembers and required staff. Barnes said that, in addition to being live-streamed on Facebook, the meeting will also be recorded.
“Since it’s an emergency meeting during an emergency declaration by the town, county and state, that’s all that is required,” Barnes said. “Were it not needed for the transaction of business, we wouldn’t be doing it. There will be proper spacing and precautions taken.”
Former Summerfield Mayor Gail Durham is one of many residents who don’t like the move one bit.
Dunham posted her displeasure on Facebook.
She wrote “The town has scheduled a non-essential meeting six days after the Resolution to CEASE NON-ESSENTIAL OPERATION was made public, to decide if the town will comply? Deeply sad that the town has not posted 100% compliance. What are they thinking?”
Dunham told the Rhino Times that she had also inquired of town officials last week why the Summerfield Town Hall remained open and she said she was told that was because not many people regularly went to the Town Hall.