*This provides updated information about remote public meetings. For more information, visit our previous blog post about public meeting compliance.
As North Carolina continues to adapt to the emerging post-COVID-19 landscape, public bodies have begun embracing remote alternatives to in-person meetings. While videoconferencing and conference calls have been unquestionably useful during this time, public bodies must still ensure that they comply with legislative requirements and public policy principles governing open meetings. To that end, the North Carolina General Assembly passed Senate Bill 704, which in relevant part, specifies remote meeting requirements during a declared state of emergency. This post seeks to highlight the requirements that public bodies having remote meetings have to follow during the declared emergency.
Remote Meeting Defined
Per Senate Bill 704, a remote meeting is “an official meeting, or any part thereof, . . . between one and all of the members of the public body participating by simultaneous communication.” G.S. 166A-19.24(i)(3). A “simultaneous communication” refers to all electronic communications, including video or telephone conferencing means. G.S. 166A-19.24(i)(4).
Conducting the Meeting
Prior to holding a meeting, public bodies are required to give proper public notice of the start time and the specific method by which the public can access the remote meeting while the meeting occurs. Remote meetings using simultaneous live audio and video must be streamed live. There are no requirements for the platform that has to be used for livestreaming. For remote meetings conducted via conference call, public bodies must provide listeners with a number to dial in to hear the audio or live stream the audio.
All board members must be able to hear other board members, hear anyone else who is addressing the public body, and be heard themselves. If any board member cannot be seen during any remote meeting, the board member must identify himself or herself at the beginning of the meeting or when the roll is taken, prior to participating in any deliberations (e.g. making motions, proposing amendments, and raising points of order), and before voting. For meetings conducted via videoconference, board members don’t have to identify themselves before speaking as long as they can be physically seen by the public body.
Public bodies must ensure that members of the public have the ability to clearly understand all actions and deliberations of the board. Public bodies can satisfy this requirement by using an agenda and making the agenda available to the public. Board members must have access to all documents being considered in the remote meeting. Also, for remote meetings conducted during declared emergencies, boards are expressly prohibited from charging any fee to defray part of the cost to provide a location and equipment for the remote meeting.
For a board member to be counted present for quorum during a remote meeting, that board member must remain connected. A board member who disconnects either intentionally or accidentally will be not be counted as present for quorum purposes. Also, one significant departure from “normal” board meetings is that all votes must be taken by roll call. Written ballots or secret ballots are not permitted for remote meetings during declared emergencies.
The minutes must reflect that the meeting was held using simultaneous communication and detail in which board members participated remotely. The minutes must also specify each time that a board member joins or leaves the remote meeting. Additionally, throughout the course of the meeting, it is important to note that all written communications by board members regarding the transaction of public business will be a public record and must be preserved.
Public Hearings and Closed Sessions
Public bodies authorized or required to conduct public hearings may conduct public hearings remotely, but may not take subsequent action as a result of those hearings until 24 hours after the public hearing. Public bodies are permitted to conduct closed sessions remotely and exclude the public. Public bodies have a variety of ways to accomplish closed sessions remotely. For both teleconferencing and videoconferencing, public bodies should avoid having members of the public hang up or sign off of the remote meeting platform to conduct the closed session, as it is unlikely that members of the public will know when to rejoin the meeting once the closed session has ended.
Adjusting to the variety of new processes for remote meetings during this declared emergency can be tedious and cumbersome. However, this also brings about new opportunities for public bodies to grow and adapt to our ever-changing societal needs.
Article written with assistance from Cranfill Sumner & Hartzog LLP Summer Clerk Kayla McDaniel.