The Washington Post reports Capitol Hill is paralyzed over a failure to agree on a temporary remote Congressional hearing and voting bill.  Yet as Congress grapples in a behind the scenes debate over allowing remote voting by House and Senate members, the NCPA’s lobbying team in Raleigh responded to a recent call from Rep. David Lewis to engage in an historic negotiation to authorize remote hearings and voting – during the pandemic -- in the NC House and Senate and at the local government level.   And in an alliance that included not only long-time ally the NC Association of Broadcasters, but the League of Municipalities, agreement was reached just in time for the General Assembly to consider it!

     The story began to unfold at the beginning of March of this year, when Senate President Phil Berger asked the NCPA to help draft a joint statement by Executive Director Phil Lucey, Senator Berger, and Speaker Moore.   That statement, quickly approved by the NCPA high command, reminded local government boards, at the outset of the statewide stay at home order, of their option under the NC Open Meetings Law to conduct electronic meetings so long as proper notice is given to the press and public.  The joint statement was distributed by Senator Berger and Speaker Moore to all state and local government bodies and to the NCPA membership.

     Following issuance of the joint statement and over the course of the last 3 weeks, the House Select Committee on COVID-19, led by House Rules Chairman Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) and House Majority Leader Rep. Jon Bell (R-Wayne), worked furiously to cobble together a single bill for consideration by the entire General Assembly when it convenes its 2020 short session this week.  The so-called “COVID-19” bill spans 37 pages and covers a broad range of emergency measures from state level funding of benefits to conforming NC statutes to online notarization of documents and service of court papers.  And notably, the draft bill includes two pages of provisions that temporarily amend the state’s Open Meetings Law to improve the existing Open Meetings Law electronic meetings machinery.  The new legislation – scheduled to be voted upon by the full North Carolina House of Representatives and Senate on Thursday – would permit the General Assembly as well as local government bodies from city councils to county commissions to conduct “remote” meetings that are accessible to the public and press via livestream (through a link on the public body’s website) and telephone and to vote, though members of the public body are not physically present in one location.  At the same time, the bill preserves all of the current Open Meetings Law requirements, including advance notice of meetings to the public and press, presence of a quorum in order to vote online, and the requirement to keep statutorily sufficient minutes of the publicly conducted portion of meetings as well as closed sessions.

       Remarkably, the NCPA lobbying team, in tandem with Rep. Lewis’s and Rep. Bell’s staff was able to build consensus with the League of Municipalities and other public sector interests around the new, temporary changes to the NC Open Meetings Law.  And the historic, coming together of NCPA / NCAB and public sector interests included agreement on language that bars state and local government from charging $25 per person to access an electronic, remote meeting under a 20+ year-old portion of the current NC Open Meetings Law.   By the end of last week, the agreement on improving the strength of the Open Meetings Law requirements for electronic meetings had been achieved without doing violence to the existing NC Open Meetings Law structure.

      Agreement on the COVID-19 bill language comes just in time.  True to the NCPA’s hopes for the 2020 General Assembly short session, a bill that proposes to enshrine the public’s right to know in the state constitution by way of referendum to be approved by voters in November is on track to be filed by 2019 Lassiter Award winner Rep. Mitchell Setzer (R-Catawba) when the short session opens this week.  This “Sunshine Amendment,” approved by 80% of Florida and California voters when the state constitutional amendment was put to voters via referendum in those states has proved to be an invaluable fortification against bills filed every year that seek to reduce current levels of access to public records and meetings.  And while the bill that could put the Sunshine Amendment on the ballot in North Carolina won’t be considered by the General Assembly until it reconvenes the short session in July or August of this year, the bill is a veritable call to arms for NCPA members.   Every member will need to have a conversation with General Assembly representatives over the next 60 days to build on the government transparency momentum created by the Open Meetings Law improvements achieved  in the COVID-19 legislation.

     The upshot is that with all that has transpired and the enormous challenges that remain for the country and the state, events in just the last 30 days in Raleigh have put the forces of open government back on the offensive.  And the NCPA has once again taken the lead.

John Bussian. The Bussian Law Firm. 919.306.3319. Legislative Counsel for the NC Press Association