The Goldsboro City Council met Wednesday for its annual retreat without the public being in attendance and in what a North Carolina Press Association attorney said is a violation of the state Open Meetings Law.
City officials declined to say if public attendance will be allowed during the retreat, which continues Thursday, or other public meetings of the council.
Amanda Martin, an attorney representing the NCPA, said the city council is not able to legally continue holding meetings without public access, even if the meetings are provided online.
“As I understand the situation, the meeting as planned is in violation of the law,” Martin said of the council retreat. “Our so-called emergency meeting statute, G.S. 166A-19.24, allows for ‘remote’ meetings during declarations of emergency, but this meeting does not meet the definition of a remote meeting if all members of the public body will attend in person.”
The public has not been provided access to attend city council meetings since April, and all council-appointed boards and committees started becoming available for online viewing in June, said LaToya Henry, Goldsboro’s public information officer. City council meetings were already being provided online through Facebook Live and YouTube prior to the pandemic.
On Wednesday, the entire city council attended the annual retreat in the second-floor conference room of the City Hall annex, at 200 N. Center St.
The meeting started with swearing in District 1 Councilwoman Hiawatha Jones, who was appointed to serve the unexpired term of Antonio Williams. Williams was elected in November to serve on the Wayne County Board of Commissioners.
The meeting included city staff updates on current and future projects and department highlights.
Henry said earlier this week that city officials decided to restrict public access to public meetings due to Gov. Cooper’s Executive Order No. 189 and state limits on mass gatherings. City meeting notices also cite the executive order and direct residents to watch meetings online.
Frayda Bluestein, a distinguished professor of public law and government with the School of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said the mass gathering limitations do not apply to local government meetings.
Wayne County government meetings have remained open to the public throughout the pandemic, said Joel Gillie, Wayne County public information officer.
“Our regular meetings have always been open to the public,” Gillie said. “For meetings where attendance was limited due to the pandemic, we had an overflow room setup for the public to watch the meeting and they were able to speak during public comments.
“Current executive orders specifically exclude government meetings from gathering limits. As a COVID-19 precaution, we have limited the number of people physically in our meeting room during meetings, but provide an overflow room for anyone who wishes to view the meeting or participate in public comments.”
Meetings of the Board of Commissioners are also available on the Wayne County government’s YouTube channel, he said.
The towns of Mount Olive and Fremont also allow the public to attend board meetings.
Sherry Davis, Mount Olive’s interim town clerk, said that from April to June the town board held its meetings on Zoom and provided a link to the public.
In July, the board began meeting in person at the Train Depot, at 110 W. Main St., with some members meeting through Zoom.
“We had limited public access first come, first served in order to observe social distancing and wearing a mask was mandatory,” Davis said. “We also provided a Zoom meeting link to the public via our website and those who receive our alerts.”
On Oct. 5, the board started meeting again in person in the board meeting room, at 114 E. James St., Davis said.
Social distancing and masks are required for those who attend the town board meetings.
Fremont Mayor Darron Flowers said that all of the town board meetings have remained open to the public during the pandemic.