Sunday, October 2, 2022

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Elon town council offers remote meetings options for some advisory boards

Elon’s town council has laid down a new meeting policy for its advisory boards and commissions that could see some of these groups resume the sort of “virtual” meetings that were standard practice during the coronavirus pandemic.

During a regularly-scheduled meeting on Tuesday, the council unanimously signed off on this new policy, which recognizes three permissible meeting formats for the town’s non-quasi-judicial boards and commissions.

Under this policy, a board’s members are entitled to meet live and in person, remotely over the Internet, or using a hybrid format that would allow some members to “attend” remotely as long as a majority is physically present in the same place.

The council adopted these three options at the suggestion of Elon’s town manager Richard Roedner, who said that he drafted this policy in consultation with the town’s attorney in order to give advisory boards and commissions more flexibility in how they conduct public meetings.

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Roedner noted that, under state law, public bodies have long been able to conduct in-person and hybrid proceedings. But the arrival of the coronavirus saw the introduction of the fully remote, or virtual, meeting thanks to the widespread availability of Zoom and other, online teleconferencing tools.

Roedner added that elected and quasi-judicial bodies have been legally prohibited from using the fully remote option since the end of North Carolina’s pandemic-era state of emergency.

“It is clear that elected officials have to meet in person now,” he reminded the council. “But there is nothing that talks about appointed boards. So the question has come up, how do they meet?”

Roedner said that, under his policy proposal, an advisory board’s members would have the ability to choose among the three meeting formats – barring any added direction from the town council. He stressed that the council itself won’t be able to avail itself of the fully remote option under this policy. Nor will any quasi-judicial body, such as the town’s planning board when it convenes as the board of adjustment. But other appointed advisory boards will have this choice due to the absence of any contrary rules from the state.

In either case, Roedner observed that any remote gatherings conducted under this policy will still have to be accessible to the public, who will be able to tune in and provide feedback during remote meetings through a teleconferencing platform like Zoom.

“All meetings are public, obviously,” he added, “and when it’s going to be a remote meeting, the public has full access to the meeting by remote means.”

The council, for its part, had some mixed feelings about offering the fully-remote option to its appointees. Some of its members even wanted to limit this format to times of declared public emergency, although the council ultimately chose not to impose any added restrictions on the virtual option.

The prevailing view among Roedner as well as the council was that most of the town’s appointed boards are unlikely to abuse the privilege granted to them in this policy.

“I don’t see any of our committees meeting remotely,” the town manager declared, “by and large, they will be meeting in person, and as elected officials, if you have a committee that decides every meeting is going to be remote, you need to fix that.”

Mark Greene, the town’s mayor pro tem, was inclined to concur with Roedner’s prediction.
“I think it’s remote that we deal with anything remotely,” he said before he apologized for the admitted “dad joke.”

Bob Hagemann, Elon’s town attorney, wasn’t on hand for the council’s meeting on Tuesday. Even so, Hagemann subsequently told The Alamance News that he has no misgivings about allowing fully remote meetings for purely advisory boards and commissions.

“While there is no statute that specifically answers the question,” he explained in an interview Wednesday, “I am legally comfortable with members of advisory boards participating remotely so long as the public – and media – are able to attend the meeting.”

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