Reporters covering government in the last two months know public bodies have changed their way of doing business. Members of the press were granted essential worker status, but that didn’t mean you would be admitted to government meetings. Many members of public bodies did not actually attend meetings, either. Like the rest of the world, meetings went virtual, with Zoom and Google or telephone conference calls. Public bodies made up rules as they went along about how they would attempt to accommodate the Open Meetings Law and the Governor's Stay-at-Home Order, requiring social distancing. Sometimes bodies followed guidance offered by UNC’s School of Government, sometimes not. That catch-as-catch-can approach now has been replaced by Session Law 2020-3.
So long as there is a state of emergency, public bodies are permitted to conduct “remote meetings,” which include meeting by “conference telephone, conference video, or other electronic means.“ The law took effect May 4, though there is “forgiveness” for remote meetings that took place between March 10, 2020, and the law taking effect. Here are key provisions of the new law:
- Notice of remote meetings must inform the public of how to access the meeting as the meeting occurs. Ordinarily regular meetings need be announced only once, but if the prior notice didn’t inform the public how to access the meeting remotely, the body needs to provide a new notice with those details.
- The meeting must be streamed real-time. If it’s a conference call, dial-in information can be provided.
- Any members participating in the meeting who cannot physically be seen must identify themselves when the roll is taken, when participating in the meeting and when voting.
- All documents to be considered in the meeting must be provided to the members of the public body. (Note – those materials are public records that should be made available to the public on request unless there is a specific, statutory exemption from the public records law.)
- The method for the remote meeting must allow members to hear other members, as well as anyone else who might address the public body.
- All votes must be roll call votes.
- Any communications between or among members of the public body by chat, instant message, text, or other format are public records.
- To comply with any statutory requirements for public hearings, the public body must allow for written comments to be submitted any time between notice of the meeting and 24 hours following the meeting. This means that any required votes must be taken at another meeting at least 24 hours later.
Questions have arisen about whether emergency meetings are different now. They aren't.
The Open Meetings Law defines an emergency meeting as “one called because of generally unexpected circumstances that require immediate consideration by the public body.” G.S. 143-318.12(f). So the first question is whether there truly is an emergency. I think it is fair to say that an “emergency” is an issue that cannot wait 48 hours. (That is the amount of notice required for a “special meeting.”)
If there really is an emergency need for a meeting, there is no set amount of time for notice. Rather, this is what the law provides:
“For an emergency meeting, the public body shall cause notice of the meeting to be given to each local newspaper, local wire service, local radio station, and local television station that has filed a written request, which includes the newspaper’s, wire service’s, or station’s telephone number, for emergency notice with the clerk or secretary of the public body or with some other person designated by the public body. This notice shall be given either by e-mail, by telephone, or by the same method used to notify the members of the public body and shall be given immediately after notice has been given to those members.”
There are two take-aways from that language. First, you must be sure that you have a request on file to be notified of special and emergency meetings. If not, a public body doesn’t have to individually notify you of special and emergency meetings. Second, if you have asked for notice, they must notify you “immediately after” notice is given to members of the body.
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