As NC Public Bodies Return To In-Person Meetings, Some Hope Remote Options Stay
As the COVID-19 pandemic abates, public bodies across the Charlotte region are resuming in-person meetings. But that raises questions about whether there’s still a role for remote participation by elected officials or members of the public who want to speak.
The transition has brought rough spots. Consider the June 1 meeting of the Union County Board of Education.
The board had been meeting in person since last fall — and people had been showing up to weigh in on pandemic safety and other matters. At the June 1 meeting, one of the first on the list was Stacy Staggs, a Charlotte parent who wanted to speak about Union County's debate over whether masks should be required in schools.
Staggs has medically fragile twins who stayed in remote learning throughout the school year. She had spoken to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board via Zoom several times and asked in advance if she could have that option in Union County. A school district staff person said no, but said Staggs could send someone else to read her statement.
But when that surrogate showed up, board Chair Melissa Merrell balked. She said it violated policy to have one person speak in another person's time slot.
The surrogate, who never gave her name, argued, then tried a new tactic.
"I’m Stacy Staggs," she said.
"No," Merrell responded. "You’re not Stacy Staggs. We all know who Stacy Staggs is."
Finally, a security guard escorted the would-be speaker away from the dais.
Are In-Person Meetings Safe For Everyone?
The challenge is that public bodies are transitioning back to in-person meetings at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is ebbing but not gone. Almost half the state’s adult population remains unvaccinated, and the highly contagious delta variant poses an ongoing threat.
"We can’t say that this pandemic is over," Staggs said last week. "There’s still a significant risk, even among people who are vaccinated."
She says she wanted to speak to the Union County board because the virus doesn’t stop at county boundaries. She still has more to say to the CMS board, too. But starting Tuesday, the CMS board is also switching to in-person public comments. Staggs has signed up to speak but says she’s wavering. Even though she's vaccinated, she worries about exposing her children, who are too young for the COVID-19 vaccine.
"Limiting it to in-person attendance means that some people just aren’t going to go. They’re not going to think that it’s worth the risk," she said.
Adjusting Fast To The Pandemic
When the pandemic struck in the spring of 2020, public bodies across the country had to patch together ways to meet safely while preserving public access. Public interest surged as officials gathered on Zoom to wrestle with life-changing decisions about public safety and economic upheaval.
As meetings went remote, North Carolina lawmakers realized the state’s Open Meetings Law didn’t provide for that option. Bob Joyce, a professor at the UNC Chapel Hill School of Government, says they acted quickly to address that.
"The legislature introduced a new statute making it clear that remote participation in meetings could take place, that board members could participate remotely," he said. "Their remote participation could count toward there being a quorum. Their remote votes could count."
The new remote-meeting law also required that meetings be streamed for public access. Shannon Tufts, a colleague of Joyce’s at the School of Government, worked with IT staff in local governments who had to make it work. She says most public bodies already streamed meetings. And most of them quickly figured out ways to allow public comments in remote meetings, even though that’s not required by law.
"I thought they were phenomenal, what they were able to accomplish in such a short amount of time," Tufts said recently.
Some, like CMS, figured out how to patch speakers into remote board meetings. Some allowed people to email comments or leave voice messages.
Return To In-Person Varies
North Carolina saw wide variation in when and how bodies resumed some type of in-person meetings. Some went back as early as August 2020.
"The larger jurisdictions, those that have been more hard-hit by the pandemic in terms of numbers, certainly we saw them less likely to return to full in-person meetings," Tufts said.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, which hosts meetings of the City Council, county commissioners and school board, allowed those bodies to meet with limited occupancy as early as April 2020. That meant no more than 10 people in small rooms and "well below 50%" in the chamber, said city spokesperson Cory Burkarth.
It was June 7 of this year before the chamber was opened for large groups.
The challenges also vary from county to county.
"Parts of our state are still severely impacted by lack of broadband access," Tufts said.
She says coastal Onslow County addressed that by using several county spaces to provide socially distanced viewing rooms for the public.
"They had big televisions with closed-captioning enabled so that the public could come and sit in a safe place, socially distanced, but actually not have the technology challenges that would have otherwise existed," she said.
In Guilford County, the school board met in person last month without an audience. Several news outlets reported that frustrated parents gathered outside the building, pounding on windows and chanting as board members entered.
The Guilford school board voted to bring back in-person audiences and public comments this month.
Boards Can't Create Their Own Hybrids
Gaston County’s school board has been meeting in person for months. Instead of sitting at the dais, they set up tables in the space where the audience would normally be to allow more space between masked board members. Public speakers wait for their turn outside the meeting room — and in some cases, outside the building.
Lena Ware, an 18-year-old student, was among a group that showed up June 21 to ask the board to force South Point High School to eliminate the Red Raider team name and mascot.
"There was just a bunch of chairs sitting for us outside and they would come out and get us when it was time for us to speak," she said. She said there was no way to watch what was happening inside, except for cellphone streaming.
Beth Soja, a Charlotte-based lawyer for the North Carolina Press Association, says that probably violated the state’s Open Meetings Law. Because all nine members were present inside, the new remote meeting law wouldn’t apply, she says. That law allows bodies to limit the public to remote access only for meetings where at least one member is participating remotely.
"The reality is that a public body now, at this juncture, you have to pick," she said. "You can’t make up your own hybrid part-remote part-traditional public meeting."
Gaston school board chair Jeff Ramsey didn't respond to a request for comment. District spokesperson Todd Hagans said the board's next meeting will probably be in August, and the format for public participation hasn't been set.
Remote Access As An Equity Issue
Despite the stumbles and challenges, UNC Chapel Hill's School of Government’s Tufts says she’s hearing from public officials around the state who say they want the future to include some of the innovations developed during the pandemic.
"There is clear, prevailing evidence that they are going to want to maintain some level of public engagement through these remote channels," she said.
Charlotte City Council member Dimple Ajmera is one of those proponents. When City Council resumed in-person meetings a few weeks ago, she got permission to keep participating remotely. She gave birth just five days after participating in a long, heated meeting in which the council approved a long-term plan for the city’s future.
"I was certainly concerned about having to attend those seven-hour meetings in person, especially as we got closer to the due date, but then also with the COVID-19," she said last week.
Ajmera says her experience led her to think about all the people who are constrained from running for office — or even speaking at meetings — because family duties or distance make in-person attendance difficult. She even heard from some immigrants who were intimidated by appearing in person at a government building but participated via Zoom.
Having remote options "really opens up doors of opportunity for those who have been traditionally left behind in terms of civic engagement," Ajmera said.
Ajmera says a council committee is looking at ways to provide remote options on a permanent basis. She expects the full council to take up the matter soon. It's a convenience for some, she said, "but most importantly, I think, it addresses the issues of equity and access, and it allows diverse representation."
The right to remote participation isn’t guaranteed once in-person meetings resume. When Mecklenburg County commissioners returned to in-person meetings in May, they denied Commissioner Ella Scarborough’s request to keep participating from home.
Local bodies have some leeway to provide remote access. But the state law that set up ground rules applies only during a statewide state of emergency. North Carolina’s current state of emergency ends July 30.
That means legislators may need to add an item to their agenda: Figuring out what “the new normal” looks like for public engagement in government meetings.
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