When town hall is empty: Boards debate merits of in-person, remote meetings
After a mass migration from boardrooms to cyberspace last spring, one by one Western North Carolina’s public bodies have transitioned back to in-person meetings — with the exception of Sylva’s town board.
But for a frigid outdoor meeting April 1 to handle a pair of zoning issues, the Town of Sylva has met exclusively via Zoom since the pandemic began. There are a few reasons for that, board members said.
Commissioner Ben Guiney, who is an emergency room doctor at Harris Regional Hospital, said that for a long time he’d been pushing to remain virtual as case numbers stayed too high for his liking.
“We were going to go back to in-person meetings for this previous meeting,” added Commissioner Mary Gelbaugh, “but we had two of the board members who would have been unable to attend had we gone to an in-person meeting.”
Keeping the meeting virtual meant those board members could attend regardless of their summertime comings and goings.
The board was planning to hold its first indoor, in-person meeting since March 2020 for an Aug. 12 Board of Adjustments meeting. But on Aug. 2, the town announced that “due to the rising COVID-19 cases in Jackson County,” this meeting, too, would occur via Zoom.
“Clearly right now it’s a bad idea to start going back in person, with cases going crazy,” said Guiney.
In the seven-day period ending Aug. 2, Jackson County recorded 88 new cases , and Guiney said he’s seeing a steady stream of COVID patients in the emergency room, nearly all unvaccinated. Guiney himself has had both the illness and the vaccine but said he doesn’t want to risk getting it again and is nervous about what might happen if the public is allowed in the boardroom.
“One of the things that I have not wanted to contend with is this mask fighting, where someone is refusing to wear a mask and they should be,” he said. “I don’t want to get into that. I don’t want to get into that fight.”
Changing the conversation
Until the pandemic hit, elected bodies didn’t have clear legal authority to meet remotely. In fact, in the months prior to the pandemic Jackson County was engaged in a lively debate over what to do if a commissioner simply stops attending meetings. For most of 2019, then-Commissioner Mickey Luker was absent from the boardroom, though he often called in via speakerphone. His absence had constituents in Cashiers calling for his removal from office.
“Regardless of whether you phone in or not, it’s important that the representative that was voted in attends the meetings, the work sessions, beyond just a phone call to engage people with pros and cons and how you feel about whatever issue is being debated,” Mark Letson, a Republican who narrowly lost a 2020 election bid to replace Luker, said in an October 2019 interview. “You want that one-on-one contact. That’s what he signed up for. That’s what he should fulfill.”
But the pandemic turned such conventional wisdom on its head. In May 2020, new legislation explicitly allowed public bodies to meet electronically as long as North Carolina is under a State of Emergency. When the pandemic first hit, many public bodies outright cancelled their meetings, but then most of them turned to Zoom or YouTube to resume public business.
However, not all public bodies cut out the in-person component completely, as Sylva did. From the beginning, Jackson County used a hybrid format, with commissioners masked and socially distanced inside the boardroom and a limited number of seats available for members of the public. Down the hall, an overflow room allowed additional space for people to watch the meeting, broadcast via Zoom. People could also attend from home, in the early days by procuring the Zoom link and later on by watching on YouTube. The board accepts both written and oral comments, delivered either in person or via Zoom. Since mid-May, streaming has continued but masking and distancing requirements were no longer in effect for the boardroom.
“All aspects of the meeting actually are easier when it’s live in person as opposed to live remote,” said Jackson County Chairman Brian McMahan. “It can be done, and I’m very thankful for technology and very thankful that we have these options. If we hadn’t it would have created a huge problem, but it’s easier in person.”
Waynesville Alderman Anthony Sutton agrees.
“Our population in Waynesville, a large majority of them do not have access to broadband, and we wanted all of our constituents to be able to participate in the meetings,” he said. “Even those people that could phone in, it’s not the same as being there. We had public comments for a while that you had to write it in. Now I think it’s best just to be able to listen to the constituents as much as they like to talk.”
For about a month and a half at the beginning of the pandemic, Sutton said, the board used Zoom to broadcast its meetings from town hall. After that, it went back to in-person meetings, with the room’s capacity increasing over time as CDC guidelines changed. Now, Waynesville’s meetings are in-person only — with no livestreaming or video archive — though audio recordings are available upon request after the fact. This year’s budget includes funds to revamp town hall’s audio and visual equipment.
Quality of communication
Sutton believes that communication is better in person, with people “generally more hospitable” to each other when speaking face-to-face.
“I will be honest with you — a lot of the people don’t really feel comfortable speaking in the public comment section, but they know that you’re going to be there, so they’ll wait to talk to you after the meeting,” he said.
But in Guiney’s view, public input doesn’t suffer in a remote meeting — though he allowed that he’d only been on the board four months before the pandemic started.
“There’s no exchange in public comment,” he said. “You just listen. I don’t feel like we’ve missed out on that. I think it’s also allowed more people to participate in the meetings.”
Pre-pandemic, it wasn’t unusual for the only people attending a Town of Sylva meeting to be two reporters from The Smoky Mountain News and The Sylva Herald. Meetings with more controversial items on the agenda, meanwhile, could draw a crowd that overwhelmed the boardroom’s 75-person fire code capacity. By contrast, the least-viewed video on the town’s YouTube page currently has 11 views, with most videos garnering 20-40 views. The most-viewed video, an Aug. 13, 2020, meeting that included long discussions about the town’s Main Street program and CARES Act funding, has 170 views. The sole meeting streamed to the town’s Facebook page, a July 27, 2020, discussion that included extensive public comment and a vote on the future of Sylva’s Confederate statue , has a whopping 8,600 views.
“I feel like I’ve gotten increased emails from the public and phone calls not being in person, but as you know we never really had a strong attendance unless there was a major issue,” said Gelbaugh.
When Sylva does eventually return to in-person meetings, livestream broadcast will continue. The town’s 2021-22 budget included about $13,500 for recording and broadcasting equipment. It’s been ordered, said Town Manager Paige Dowling, and should be operational in a couple of weeks.
After the emergency
As long as Gov. Roy Cooper’s State of Emergency remains in effect , public bodies can continue meeting remotely without an option for in-person attendance. But while streaming and a virtual option for comments will still be allowed once the state of emergency ends, elected boards will no longer have the authority to supplant in-person meetings with remote ones, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill David. M. Lawrence Distinguished Professor of Public Law and Government Frayda Bluestein wrote in a recent article for the respected UNC School of Government blog Coates’ Cannons.
“Before the SOE (state of emergency) law, there were no specific rules about board members participating remotely,” she wrote. “The SOE law set out specific rules for remote participation, and the use of remote meetings has become a regular practice during the pandemic. Remote public access to meetings in many places has increased. But those SOE law rules expire when the state of emergency ends.”
However, with cases rising as the delta variant spreads through the unvaccinated population, the immediate future may see a return to mid-pandemic practices rather than a move toward pre-pandemic norms.
“I hope that if people will increase their vaccination rates and people will mask up and continue safety precautions, then maybe we can get through this fall or winter without having to go backwards,” said McMahan. “But ultimately we may have to go backwards and mask up again and do all the kinds of things we saw last year.”