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Legislative leaders, NCPA issue statement on electronic meetings

Local boards are streaming their meetings. Local boards are streaming their meetings.

Senate leader Phil Berger and the North Carolina Press Association have issued a joint statement on how local government bodies can continue to meet under a statewide emergency order that requires social distancing and bans assemblies of more than 10 people.

"As the COVID-19 crisis continues, local governments across North Carolina are going to be making critical decisions to help protect the well-being of their residents," Berger said Monday. "Thanks to modern technology, electronic meetings are easier than ever before."

"During these unprecedented times, we know that local governing boards have to make tough decisions quickly. In order to do so, many boards are turning to electronic measures to conduct business," Berger (R-Rockingham), House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) and NCPA Executive Director Phil Lucey said. "State law allows for electronic meetings, and we encourage boards to utilize them. Boards should follow the guidance from the Attorney General’s Office about conducting meetings electronically with proper notice, and ideally, at no cost to individual viewers or listeners.

"Now, more than ever, North Carolinians need to know and understand the decisions their elected officials are making. They also need to prioritize their health and safety. Providing citizens with access to their elected leaders through audio or video streams gives them the ability to stay connected with their government while staying home."

The legislative leaders and NCPA director cited an opinion from Shannon Cassell, a special counsel for Attorney General Josh Stein, who predicted that courts would "view efforts to remain transparent through a lens of reasonableness."

"Due to the unprecedented circumstances we are all faced with, and the fact that local governing bodies conducting meetings remotely is not expressly prohibited by statute, I conclude that local governments can carry out necessary meetings electronically and remain in compliance with Open Meetings Laws," Cassell said.

The Henderson County Board of Commissioners and Hendersonville City Council have been ahead of the curve, adopting rules for electronic meetings with limited in-person attendance. The county's rules, which apply only during a state of emergency, preserve the public notice requirement, requires polling of members one by one to hear their yes or no vote and allows for public comment via email or postal mail.

“We’re not attempting to change the normal pattern,” Commissioner Bill Lapsley said last week when the board adopted the special rules. “Once we get through this current situation, this option isn’t out there."

Chairing an electronic meeting of the French Broad MPO, Lapsley said "worked pretty good but the issue that really stood out to me" was the inability to see the vote. "When we’re all together, when the chair called for a vote we can see each other."

The solution to that, the board agreed, is to poll commissioners out loud.