Local NC governments can’t meet in City Hall. Are online meetings legal?

North Carolina is under a stay-at-home order that bans gatherings of more than 10 people, though there are exceptions for essential employees like those who work in government

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein.png

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein said he believes it is reasonable for the governing body to meet electronically.

Photo/courtesy ncdoj.gov

By Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan and Danielle Battaglia
The News & Observer

RALEIGH, N.C. — Can local governments hold electronic meetings during the coronavirus crisis and still comply with open meeting laws?

According to North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, yes.

The N.C. League of Municipalities and N.C. Association of County Commissioners asked the governor’s office and the legislature for guidance last week. The state is under a stay-at-home order that bans gatherings of more than 10 people, though there are exceptions for essential employees like those who work in government.

Stein responded in a letter to the governor’s office, calling this “exigent circumstances.”

If it is not possible for a quorum to be physically present, Stein said he believes it is “reasonable for the governing body to meet electronically.”

Only audio is required, not video.

Local governments are holding online-only public meetings starting this week. It’s almost prime budget time for local governments, which usually hold public hearings on their spending plans in May before passing them in June, before the new fiscal year starts July 1.

On Monday, the Wake County Board of Commissioners convened via video conference, with home walls, windows and lamps in their backgrounds like many others who are having video meetings from their residences during the statewide stay-at-home order.

Durham announced plans for virtual meetings for the duration of the state and city states of emergency.

Support from Berger, Moore, Press Association

Stein responded to the governor’s office in a letter Monday that was released along with a joint statement from the top two leaders of the General Assembly – Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore – and the N.C. Press Association:

“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, Moore and Press Association executive director Phil Lucey said in their joint statement.

“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,” they said.

“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,” they said. “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.”

What about state meetings?

While many local governments already stream their meetings, the state legislature does not have any options for the public to watch on screen. During normal circumstances, members of the media and public can attend in person; otherwise there is only audio for committee meetings and floor sessions.

There are 120 members of the House and 50 members of the Senate, with each convening in its own chamber.

While the legislature is not due back in session until April 28, the House Select Committee on COVID-19 has been meeting via teleconference. The public can listen via audio or there is very limited space, with social distancing, in person in the Legislative Building in downtown Raleigh.

The Council of State, which includes the governor, lieutenant governor and others, is set to meet via conference call on Tuesday.

©2020 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)