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State senator seeks stiffer penalties for disruptions of public meetings

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As the former chairman of Alamance County’s board of commissioners, Amy Scott Galey sometimes had to lay down the law with unruly audience members. In a couple of instances, she even found it necessary to have sheriff’s deputies to deal with recalcitrant individuals who wanted to harangue the commissioners beyond the time allotted to them under the county’s public comment policy.

State senator Amy Scott Galey, pictured as she presided over board of commissioners meeting prior to her January swearing-in as state senator.

Galey ultimately left the frustrations of the county’s meeting chambers behind when she took her place in North Carolina’s state senate earlier this year. Yet, the freshman state senator, who represents Alamance County as well as a portion of Guilford, hasn’t exactly forgotten her experiences with disruptive audiences at meetings of Alamance County’s governing board.

Two weeks ago, Galey introduced a bill that proposes to increase the penalty for people who disrupt open meetings of public bodies at both the local and state levels. Under this proposed legislation, violators could be charged with disorderly conduct – a Class 1 misdemeanor for first-time offenders and a felony for those who repeat the violation.

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In an announcement about this newly-introduced bill, Galey insisted that her proposal would bring clarity to a rather ambiguous area of criminal law.

“The current law is confusing,” she went on to assert in a news release on March 23. “It is based on trespass law and focuses on whether a person leaves a public meeting when requested. This new law deals with the conduct that disrupted the public meeting.”

Under current state law, disruptions of government meetings are sometimes treated as second-degree trespassing – a Class 3 misdemeanor that carries much lighter repercussions than the charge of disorderly conduct.

The state statutes also contain a specific provision for disruptions of government meetings. This section deems anyone who “willfully refuses to leave” a meeting after he or she “willfully interrupts, disturbs, or disrupts” the proceedings to be guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor.

It was this charge that the office of Alamance County’s sheriff ultimately leveled against 31-year-old Meg Williams last year when she defied Galey’s efforts to get her to comply with the county’s public comment policy.

Williams had initially drawn the admonition of the commissioners’ then-chairman when she took advantage of a public hearing about a package of corporate incentives to speak out against a Confederate monument that stands in front of the county’s historic courthouse.

Rather than stick to the subject at hand, Williams insisted she had a right to protest the monument and was eventually hauled off by sheriff’s deputies when she refused Galey’s repeated entreaties to return to her seat.

In the end, Williams’ clash with the commissioners’ chairman earned her a citation for disrupting a government meeting and for resisting a public officer. These two charges were ultimately dismissed by the local D.A.’s office mere weeks before Galey filed a draft of her proposed legislation on March 23.

Galey, for her part, is adamant that her proposal to increase the penalties for disruptive audience members has nothing to do with Williams or anyone else who flouted her authority when she still served as chairman of the county’s governing board.

“It has nothing to do with those particular charges,” the state senator said in an interview Wednesday. “I don’t have any personal knowledge of why it was dismissed, and the D.A.’s office hasn’t discussed it with me.

“Really,” she added, “I started thinking about this issue after January 6, seeing what happened in Congress that day and realizing that our charges wouldn’t have applied in that circumstance.”

Galey went on to concede that her tenure as a county commissioner has inevitably influenced her subsequent actions as a state legislator.

“It’s obvious that when somebody goes into a new job they draw on their experiences from the past,” she said. “But the impetus for filing the bill was not related to any particular person or any one instance.

“I have a lot of empathy for people who come to public meetings and are upset about something and they want to express themselves but they don’t know how to go about it,” Galey continued. “That’s why, when I was chair, I would start every meeting by reviewing what the expectations were for public comments…But I also want people to recognize that it is vital for governing board to accomplish their business without the interference of a mob or a group of protesters.”

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