We all know that North Carolina law requires public bodies to follow the open meetings law, which essentially means three things: publishing notice, allowing public access and keeping minutes. But what about when public bodies delegate policymaking, administrative, or advisory functions to smaller cohorts of their board or even to groups from the community? Even though these smaller committees can feel more casual, it is important to remember that these groups are subject to the same open meetings laws as the public body they serve.
These groups can go by many names – committees, commissions, task forces, working groups, etc. – but whatever they are called, when they hold a meeting with a majority of the subgroup’s members, they are bound by the same rules. If they meet without giving notice or public access or without keeping full and accurate minutes, they are violating the open meetings law.
A public body is “any elected or appointed authority, board, commission, committee, council, or other body… that (i) is composed of two or more members and (ii) exercises…a legislative, policy-making, quasi-judicial, administrative, or advisory function.” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.10(a). The plain language of this section is broad and extends to both long-established and ad hoc sub-committees, commissions and task forces created by larger public bodies, no matter what the label. Notice the inclusion of the phrase “advisory function”; a group doesn’t actually have to have any real power to be covered by the open meetings law.
For example, it is clear that a monthly school board meeting is open to the public. But if the board has created a policy committee, a facilities subcommittee, or Covid-19 task force – even if the committee is made up of parents or representatives of the business community – meetings of these groups are subject to the same open meetings rules that apply to the general board meetings. As a side note, “a meeting solely among the professional staff of a public body” is not necessarily required to be open to the public. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.10
For regular meetings, a schedule must be posted, and once it is, the notice requirement is satisfied. Each meeting doesn’t have to be individually noticed. Special meetings require notice 48 hours in advance of the meeting, and the notice must state generally what is going to be discussed. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.12(b)(2). There is no stated time for notice of an emergency meeting spurred by “generally unexpected circumstances that require immediate consideration by the public body,” but notice should be given as soon as possible and “[o]nly business connected with the emergency” maybe be discussed. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.12(b)(3).
As with all meetings subject to the open meetings law, the public has a right to attend meetings of committees and tasks forces and such. The label that a public body puts on its meeting has nothing to do with whether the public can attend. Last year, a North Carolina city fought hard to keep a “get to know you” session of newly elected private, arguing that it was purely social and therefore not subject to the open meetings law. The fact that they had an agenda, hired a facilitator and were conducting the “get to know you” session in the same place as the “official meeting” that followed persuaded a judge that it, too, was official and should be open to the public. The only exceptions to the right of public access are spelled out in the statute. Any public body, large or small, can only go into a closed session after a motion is passed that states the statutory justification of the closed session. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11(a).
Even though the public has a right to attend all meetings, the statutes governing public comments at open meetings (N.C. Gen. Stat. § 115C-51, § 153A-52.1, and § 160A-81.1) don’t reach committees and subcommittees. As long as the larger school board, city council, or boards of county commissioners provides a comment period at a general meeting once per month, the comment requirements are satisfied.
Even small committees, task forces and advisory councils must keep “full and accurate minutes of all official meetings.” They can meet that requirement with written minutes or with a recording. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.10(e).
While committee meetings can seem more off-the-cuff and less formal than full board meetings, public bodies and the journalists covering them should keep in mind that the same rules apply.
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