By David Rogers. June 17, 2020. BLOWING ROCK, NC — North Carolina state laws stipulate that elected officials must conduct town or county governance openly, with very few exceptions.
Whether physically or electronically (telephone, text messaging, or email) it is very much a “no-no” (generally speaking) for town council members to discuss a municipality’s business, especially prospective decisions, behind what are effectively closed doors. The colloquial name for these restrictions: “sunshine laws.”
An email “thread” was forwarded to Blowing Rock News yesterday and a seemingly innocuous, offhand comment and question by a commissioner may actually violate North Carolina’s open meeting laws.
Town business is its people’s business — so should be conducted openly.
Included in an email that Commissioner Sue Sweeting addressed to Town Manager Shane Fox Tuesday evening — that was copied to all other members of Town Council (unedited, presented as written):
“…Also I am getting asked about Town making masks mandatory. Boone just did it, Durham, buncombe and orange counties did it and wake drafting.
“It will take the burden off of retail and place it on us. What do others think?”
Whatever the merits of the issue and whether or not her information about other jurisdictions is accurate, this should not be discussed or the “views” of other commissioners solicited nor aired behind closed doors. The public deserves to hear the discussion that might lead to a vote and a decision.
A more proper course of action for Ms. Sweeting, if she has these concerns, would be to ask the Town Manager to include a discussion on the topic, including a prospective action, on the next Town Council meeting’s agenda. If there is a greater sense of urgency, then request a special meeting. That way, all of those constituents with any kind of vested interest will have an opportunity to receive notice, as well as a chance to weigh in on the discussion, as appropriate.
The public deserves to hear the discussion that might lead to a decision — and possibly voice their own opinions before a decision is made.
We do not want to make a mountain out of a mole hill, but how many times must certain of Blowing Rock’s Town Council members be reminded of their rights and responsibilities as public officials and what they can and cannot do?
Other municipalities have been subjected to litigation for violation of open meeting laws by elected officials. The National Conference of State Legislatures, in an article titled, “Ethics and Public Corruption Laws: Penalties” offers a chilling warning:
Legislators, public employees, and other public servants may face severe consequences for violating the public trust. The range of penalties includes censure, removal from office, permanent disqualification from holding any state position, restitution, decades in prison, and fines up into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Ironically, another North Carolina town, Surf City, was challenged by its local newspaper, the PortCityDaily about its discussions regarding the same subject (mandating the wearing of face masks). CLICK HERE to see that article which involves similar conceptual themes, though certainly not identical.
There are better uses for the Town’s taxpayer-derived funds (and staff members’ time) than to mount a legal defense — when it can be avoided simply by our elected officials doing the right thing.