The Danger of Open Meetings Violations
By: Q. Shanté Martin, Of Counsel
Compliance with the Open Meetings Law is an ongoing, ever-present obligation for all North Carolina public boards. The advent of Governor Cooper’s COVID-19 State of Emergency added a variety of additional open meetings requirements for public boards holding remote meetings. While community college boards of trustees span the entire state, have varying local priorities, have varying topography, have different demographics, and have diverse political leanings, one thing is universally constant – the application of the Open Meetings Law. This article will highlight a few open meeting requirements to which community college boards of trustees should be sure to adhere, especially while in the current declared COVID-19 State of Emergency. This article will also highlight the danger in not complying with the Open Meetings Law.
Open Meetings Requirements During Declared State of Emergency
Definition of Remote Meeting – Per G.S. 166A-19.24(i)(3), only one board member participating in the board meeting using simultaneous communication (i.e. telephone or videoconference) would make the meeting a remote meeting. In other words, if 11 out of 12 board members attend the board meeting in person, if only one (1) board member calls in to the meeting, the meeting is defined as a “remote meeting,” and all of the additional requirements for remote meetings during a declared state of emergency must be followed.
Livestreaming Requirement – G.S. 166A-19.24(b)(9) dictates that remote meetings “shall be simultaneously streamed live online” unless the meeting is conducted by conference call. This means that if one or more board members attend the meeting via videoconference (i.e. via Zoom, Google Meets, WebEx, etc.) and uses the video, the board has to live stream the meeting. If the meeting is held via conference call or if board members participate in the in-person meeting via conference call, the meeting does not have to be live-streamed even though it is still a remote meeting.
Roll Call Votes Required – For all remote meetings, all votes have to be taken by roll call vote. Voice votes are not allowed. See G.S. 166A-19.24(b)(5).
Information Required in the Meeting Minutes – For all remote meetings, the following information must be included in the minutes: 1) “that the meeting was conducted by use of simultaneous communication;” 2) which board members participated via simultaneous communication; and 3) when board members participating simultaneously joined the meeting and when they left the meeting
Requirement to Clearly Identify Items Voted On – G.S. 143-318.13(c) requires that members of the public are able to clearly understand what is being “deliberated, voted, or acted upon.” The easiest way to achieve this is to post on the website an agenda that clearly communicates what is being “deliberated, voted, or acted upon.” If the agenda is not on the website, then the board should share the agenda on the screen during the board meeting.
Open Meetings Requirements Applicable All the Time
Calendar of Regularly Scheduled Meetings on Website – If the Board establishes a calendar of regularly scheduled board meetings for the year, the Board is required to post the calendar of regularly scheduled board meetings on the website. See G.S. 143-318.12(d).
Minutes for and Notice of Committee Meetings – If a board has committees, each committee has to follow the same open meetings requirements as the full board. As such, if a board committee meets remotely, the board has to conduct roll call votes, have minutes that include the required components, and livestream for videoconferencing, etc.
Purpose Listed on Special Meeting Notices – For special meetings, the written notice of the special meeting has to list the purpose of the special meeting. During the special meeting, the board can only discuss the topic or topics identified in the written notice of the special meeting. See G.S. 143-318.12(b)(2).
Conclusion – The Danger
Why is it imperative that local boards of trustees comply with all facets of the Open Meetings Law? If a board violates the Open Meetings Law, a court may deem any action taken during such meeting “null and void.” See G.S. 143.318.16A. Given the innumerable vital actions taken by boards of trustees at every meeting, it would be extremely detrimental for a board to have one or more actions nullified by failing to comply with Open Meetings Law requirements. Thus, I encourage boards to pay close attention to Open Meeting Law requirements and comply with them. For questions on this topic, I encourage boards to consult with legal counsel.
Q. Shanté Martin is an attorney with Cranfill Sumner & Hartzog LLP, a North Carolina-based law firm and NCACCT Business Partner. Founded in 1992, CSH Law advises and represents clients in all stages of litigation before federal and state courts in North Carolina, as well as select administrative agencies. For more information please visit: www.cshlaw.com