Raleigh, N.C. — When folks first sent me a news story about the Lee County commissioners holding a public meeting in a gated community, I thought they must have gotten some bad advice.
"Some members of the public, including Lee County Commissioner Amy Dalrymple, were turned away from a public town hall held within the private Carolina Trace Gated Properties Friday night," the Sanford Herald reported about a March 9 meeting. "To enter the gated properties – and subsequently the 7 p.m. town hall meeting at the Carolina Trace Clubhouse, organized by the Lee County Board of Commissioners – individuals were asked to give their name to the guards at the entrance of Carolina Trace. Dalrymple, among others, refused to give her name or any other identifying information because she said being required to provide a name violates North Carolina's Open Meetings laws."
The state open meetings statute isn't fuzzy on this point. It reads, "each official meeting of a public body shall be open to the public, and any person is entitled to attend such a meeting." There's no mention of having to give your name, sign in or anything of the like.
After getting emails from several folks upset about this meeting and talking at length with one of them, I requested the documents related to the meeting. On first blush, they didn't clear up my questions.
Consider the first notice of the meeting, which read in part: "The purpose of the meeting is to provide a briefing on what the Board of Commissioners have accomplished this past year and receive comments as to where citizens believe the Board should concentrate efforts in the upcoming budget year. Since the meeting is being held in a gated community, only residents from Carolina Trace will be allowed to attend."
That notice, given March 4, clearly doesn't comport with the "shall be open to the public" language of the statute. Later that day, the county issued second notice which read: "The Town Hall meeting is open to the public; however, parking is limited....If a citizen wishes to attend the meeting at Carolina Trace and has a problem at the gate, please have the guard contact Mr. Lloyd Jennings."
Better, but still potentially problematic. What if Jennings wasn't available or didn't answer the phone? Who was giving the county advice?
Apparently, a pretty good lawyer. He was just ignored.
"We do not have the authority to require people to pre-register to attend an open meeting under North Carolina's Open Meetings Law," County Attorney Garris Neil Yarborough wrote in a memo to commissioners, also on March 4. He went on to enumerate other problems with the meeting, and he suggested a solution:
"Someone from the Homeowners Association with the authority to grant immediate access to anybody be stationed at the front gate along with the HOA's normal security person and a Lee County Deputy Sheriff to facilitate entrance for anyone who requests admission for the purpose of attending the public meeting. If Mr. Jennings wants to handle this task before and during the meeting, that would be great. If he doesn't want to do it, then someone else with the HOA can do it, and he can be on the telephone standby in case any problems arise.
Obviously, that advice wasn't followed, and a brouhaha followed.
It's pretty hard for a members of a public body to be held personally accountable for violating the open meetings law. The exception, according to the statute: "The court may order that all or any portion of any fee as assessed be paid personally by any individual member or members of the public body found by the court to have knowingly or intentionally committed the violation; provided, that no order against any individual member shall issue in any case where the public body or that individual member seeks the advice of an attorney, and such advice is followed."
In this case, the public body got advice, but doesn't seem to have followed it.
Following the meeting, Charles Parks, chairman of the county Board of Commissioners, had to issue an apology. That note to the public closed, "Finally, realizing, from experience, the difficulties in having a public meeting at a privately owned location, it is my intention to never call such a meeting again in the future. If my plan of holding geographically disbursed Town Hall Meetings is to continue, they will occur in publicly owned facilities."