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Cooper rejects treasurer's appeal for in-person meetings

RALEIGH — Tensions between Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and some Republican members of the Council of State surfaced again on Tuesday, this time over virtual meetings.


State Treasurer Dale Folwell asked to have the Council of State — the 10 statewide executive branch elected officials — hold its meeting in person. Six of the 10 members are Republicans. Only state Superintendent Mark Johnson, a Republican, accepted Folwell’s offer. The treasurer hosted the meeting in a mostly empty room, with other members connected online. Folwell asked Cooper to change an executive order deferring non-payment of utility bills. The governor said no.

The meeting ended abruptly after an hour, when Cooper said he had to go. Folwell asked if they were “going around the horn” — slang for departmental briefings — but was cut off. Folwell and Johnson sat in silence for a few moments after the call. The meeting was expected to last three hours, Folwell said during his monthly “Ask Me Anything” teleconference the next day.

A virtual Council of State emergency meeting in May produced similar complaints. A data presentation on COVID-19 took up much of the meeting. Council members were left with little time to question state Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen.

“When you’re meeting in person, I don’t think you have the ability to hit a button and end a meeting,” Folwell said in his monthly “Ask Me Anything” teleconference on Wednesday, July 8. “I’m a pretty busy person, but there’s no meeting on my calendar that could ever be as important … as dealing with how we flatten the economic curve.”

The scuffle over virtual meetings continues a series of disputes, largely partisan, between Council of State members. The arguments cover Cooper’s emergency orders and the transparency of his administration.

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, Cooper’s Republican opponent in the November election, last week filed a lawsuit challenging a host of emergency executive orders from the governor related to the pandemic. The filing argues the governor needs Council of State approval to issue statewide emergency orders. Emergency isolation or quarantine orders lasting more than 30 days need a judge’s OK. Cooper has sought and received neither, the lawsuit argues.

Even the approach to news briefings has split down party lines. Republican lawmakers began to hold face-to-face meetings in May. Cooper continues to host virtual news briefings. Reporters register and hope to have questions answered. Carolina Journal regularly participates in the governor’s virtual news briefings, but only once has Cooper called on CJ.

The shift to virtual meetings eliminates the atmosphere and opportunities of in-person meetings, said Brooks Fuller, director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition and Sunshine Center at Elon University. Fuller encourages face-to-face meetings unless a public health or other crisis prevents them.

“Virtual tends to lead to more access, but there are some things that we lose when meetings are in a virtual space rather than in-person,” Fuller said. “The more avenues, the better. That’s not a partisan issue. That’s just making sure that all of your constituents have access.”

Virtual meetings offer a significant advantage to the person who sets and controls the agenda, said Mitch Kokai, John Locke Foundation senior political analyst. “Take the normal power of the committee chairman, and ramp it up exponentially,” Kokai said. “Most of us feel less comfortable interjecting a question or concern during an online meeting than during a face-to-face gathering. This means good news for the politician who wants to limit questions and comments about his actions.”

“There are times when virtual meetings are unavoidable,” Kokai said. “Once face-to-face meetings can be held with proper precautions, it makes sense to restore the in-person sessions. They are critical to a well-functioning democratic process.”

The fiscal woes of local governments dominated Tuesday’s meeting. Folwell asked Cooper to reconsider an executive order shielding utility customers from losing service if they don’t pay utility bills. Tax collections have plummeted in localities that own utility companies. Dozens face potential default. Cooper refused, and the Council of State adjourned without acting on Folwell’s resolution.