It is the first amendment right of citizens to be included in decisions and conversations held by government bodies. This right makes the accessibility of government meetings most important, especially in chaotic instances, such as a state of emergency.
Those in the public who are unable to access government meetings often look to media representatives to attend meetings on behalf of the 65,000 or so residents in Haywood County.
With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Haywood local governing bodies have had to quickly adapt meetings to ensure the public has a chance to watch deliberations and participate where appropriate.
It was a challenge, given that many weren’t initially equipped with the knowledge of how to make that happen, or even the authority to switch meeting formats without adopting new policies.
Becky Johnson, a reporter for The Mountaineer, has had a birds-eye view of how several governing bodies have adapted.
“The transition for the Haywood County School Board was smoother because we had already begun using online platforms for teaching.” Said Bill Nolte, Superintendent of Haywood County Schools.
With an established YouTube channel, the school board live-streamed meetings. Public comments could be sent in, and the school board also addressed public comments from platforms like Facebook.
Members of the public were allowed to attend the meetings physically, but the school followed the 10-person gathering rule and board members participated virtually.
One hitch, however, was the school board's committee meetings, which weren't live-streamed and instead held on Google Meet, requiring a link to access them, Johnson said. If requested, the school board gave out the link, but the public would not have known to request the link ahead of time.
The Haywood County Board of Commissioners also started streaming meetings on YouTube and provided a link to the meeting on the county website. All county commissioners were present and public comments were voiced and addressed physically, while maintaining the regular guidelines for public comments at meetings.
Commissioners also allowed the public to be present but placed tags on seats at intervals marking where the audience should sit to ensure social distancing.
The Town of Waynesville have held meetings where staff were present, and the public could attend as long as the 10-person rule was followed and have also held conference calls where members of the public could phone in to listen.
Waynesville later switched to Zoom video meetings where a call-in number is provided so that members of the public without internet access could still listen and participate.
Johnson physically attended one of the town meetings. Ten people were already present in the room, so staff opened all doors and Johnson sat in the hallway, listening in.
The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority adjusted to meeting remotely by holding virtual committee meetings on Zoom. A link was published ahead of time allowing anyone to join the meeting, and public comments could be heard through the video chat.
Johnson, who attended virtual meetings for all four governing bodies, said that, “We have really good boards in Haywood County. Other areas that don’t value public participation could use this transition as an opportunity to do shady stuff. Haywood has done a great job.”
Because of the need for structured, remote government meetings, a new law has been introduced that redefines how the N.C. open meeting law is to be interpreted in the days of virtual meetings.
Session Law 2020-3, which becomes effective May 4, provides leniency for any meetings that occurred between March 10, 2020 and the date that the law went into effect.
One of the key provisions is proper meeting notification, including information on how to access the meeting remotely.
To be notified of special and emergency meetings, a person must have a request on file for notification.