Local government advisory groups hindered during COVID-19

Working from home during Covid-19 pandemic.
SCREENED OUT: While some public boards, such as the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority and Greater Asheville Regional Airport Authority, have met remotely under COVID-19 gathering restrictions, most Asheville and Buncombe County boards and commissions have canceled all meetings — including virtual discussions — since March 16. Graphic by Getty Images

In the political sausage factory that is local government, boards and commissions might be thought of as health inspectors. These citizen groups, appointed by elected city and county officials to give advice on specific areas such as affordable housing, homelessness and transit, scrutinize new proposals and provide structured public oversight of behind-the-scenes staff.

Since March 16, however, most of the sausage coming out of Asheville and Buncombe County has gone unchecked. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, both city and county governments canceled all board and commission meetings — including those conducted electronically or by phone — until further notice.

That means citizens have largely been shut out of formal policy discussions as Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners manage the tandem economic and public health crises caused by the coronavirus. Boards and commissions have also been unable to voice new input on local government budgets, which have seen drastic cuts to planned spending since the advisory groups submitted requests earlier in the year.

Asheville City Council member Julie Mayfield says the cancellations have taken away one of the city’s key tools for better decision-making. “Staff is continuing to move much of what would come through these bodies, but the lack of meetings and discussion means Council is more disconnected [from] the work than I like,” she explains. “A lot of ideas and issues get worked out at the commission and committee level that will now get worked out at Council — or perhaps not worked out in the same way.”

Safety first

City and county staff members say they decided to cancel board and commission meetings to avoid public gatherings, thereby reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission. But remote meetings, which do not carry the same public health risk, were also paused indefinitely.

Buncombe spokesperson Kassi Day says remote meetings were included in the closure “to allow for time to develop appropriate and reasonable methods to comply with statutory requirements regarding open meetings of public bodies.” Because boards and commissions are officially appointed by government leaders, they must follow the same state open meetings law that also governs elected officials.

Polly McDaniel, a spokesperson for the city of Asheville, adds that North Carolina statutes contained no explicit legal framework for remote meetings until May 4. On that date, Gov. Roy Cooper signed such guidance into law as part of the COVID-19 Recovery Act developed by the state Senate.

Yet a March 13 analysis by Frayda Bluestein, a professor with the UNC School of Government, suggests that the city and county may have been overly conservative in their approach. “I believe the risk of a violation of the open meetings law is low in this situation,” she wrote in a post for Coates’ Canons. “Although someone might file a lawsuit, I think a court would consider [electronic meetings] to be a reasonable response to the public health and safety needs at this time.”

And at least two local boards to which local governments appoint members did go ahead with remote meetings before May 4. The Greater Asheville Regional Airport Authority met virtually on April 3, while the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority met twice in April via the online platform Zoom.

“The BCTDA reviewed the business that would be conducted at both meetings and determined that the majority of the meeting was reporting, not calling for significant action from the board,” says Explore Asheville spokesperson Kathi Petersen. “As a result, the BCTDA made the decision to go ahead and hold a remote meeting that the public could attend (including taking public comment) so that typical reporting could continue for the sake of transparency.”

“As independent entities, they have made their own decisions on the conduct of meetings,” says McDaniel, when asked why the city’s approach to remote participation was different from that of the airport and TDA.

What’s left unsaid

The same COVID-19 emergency that led boards and commissions to be canceled, says Sage Turner, also makes their absence more of a concern. The City Council candidate chairs Asheville’s Downtown Commission and Affordable Housing Advisory Committee, both of which have missed two regular monthly meetings thus far.

“In many ways, it’s meant not being there as best we can for our downtown businesses, residents and greater community during its hardest times,” Turner says. “It’s meant worrying about downtown being the center of a possible resurgence and not feeling nimble and able to plan or respond accordingly, or to come together on needed initiatives like mask collaboration and reopening strategies.”

Turner adds that city staff denied her late-May request to hold a special Downtown Commission meeting for a discussion of public space and safety as Asheville moves into Phase 2 of the state’s three-phase reopening plan. She now hopes the commission will be able to resume its work in June.

Similar pressures face the Multimodal Transportation Commission, says member and City Council candidate Rich Lee. Policies such as closing streets to allow more outdoor retail and dining space, as was recently passed in Hendersonville, would benefit from open public discussion in meetings that are currently not allowed.

“Our coordination with city staff and the public is limited, even as we’re dealing with time pressure from the state beginning to allow stores and restaurants to reopen with social distancing restrictions still in place,” explains Lee.

The absence of meetings has also blunted longer-term planning efforts. Mike McCue, who chairs the Buncombe County Library Board, says all of his board’s goal-setting and strategic work is postponed; the libraries themselves remain closed to the public, with limited curbside service available at four of 13 locations.

Through the grapevine

Nevertheless, some members of public boards and commissions have found ways to work on issues outside of the formal process. MMTC chair Michael Stratton says his commission is using a “hub and spoke email model” to avoid simultaneous communication with a majority of members, which would technically qualify as a meeting under state law.

“It has been cumbersome; however, we believe the extra effort to remain engaged has already yielded positive results,” Stratton says. “Despite our temporary disbanding, members of City Council have been responsive to our questions and recommendations and have made assurances that meetings will resume as soon as both legal and health logistics have been worked out.”

Turner says she’s also limited her conversations to one commission member at a time as she moves forward with downtown advocacy. Promoting the 2020 Downtown Business Census, fundraising for the One Buncombe Fund and discussing public safety with the Asheville Police Department, she says, all continue to take place.

Sandra Kilgore, a Council candidate and member of Asheville’s Planning and Zoning Commission, says she continues to receive and review information for development projects in the city’s pipeline. She emphasizes that, in the time of COVID-19, her focus is safety. She believes her commission has made the right decision in delaying its meetings.

“Of course, if it becomes something longer, where we do need to address some of these other issues coming up in Planning and Zoning, we need to take measures to address those issues,” Kilgore continues. “But right now, I think it’s too early to feel like we need to make adjustments.”

And Buncombe County Commissioner Joe Belcher believes both members of boards and commissions and general citizens haven’t shied away from contacting elected officials during the COVID-19 crisis. “I’m still getting as much or more — probably more — emails regarding core services that we’re trying to make sure are moving,” he says.

Money moves

Perhaps the biggest pieces of local government business on which boards and commissions regularly weigh in are the Asheville and Buncombe County annual budgets. This year, those spending plans have been under unprecedented strain. Buncombe, for example, is projecting a 10% year-over-year decline in sales tax revenue for 2020-21, a drop of nearly $3.5 million.

Mayfield notes that Council received all budget requests before its mid-March retreat. Although she admits that the fiscal situation has changed substantially since then, she believes the lack of board and commission meetings hasn’t mattered much to the budget process: “With no money to do anything new, any new requests would be moot now anyway,” she suggests.

Others disagree. “Without committee input, millions of dollars of CARES Act funding are flowing into our city budget with less opportunity for community engagement and oversight,” says city Transit Committee member and Council candidate Kim Roney. “Our neighbors volunteering on the Human Relations Commission must be invited to lend their expertise in applying an equity lens to process and funding when COVID-19 has amplified inequities in our society and community.”

Nicole Townsend, who serves on the HRC and is running alongside Roney for Council, says she’s particularly disappointed that her commission is unable to advocate collectively on higher wages for the lowest-paid city staff. The issue recently attracted attention thanks to Asheville’s firefighters, who claim they’ve been unfairly excluded from city pay policies.

“I believe we could have been an advocate alongside city staff and community members that are fighting every day to ensure that everyone working for the city receives a minimum of $15 an hour regardless of their job title,” Townsend says.

Council member Keith Young, however, says those seeking more from the city may need to temper their expectations in light of the pandemic. Young, who is also running for reelection, notes that he scrapped a property tax increase he and Mayfield previously proposed to fund climate-related initiatives.

“You would be foolish to think that it’s just business as usual — ‘All right, pandemic’s over, we can continue to ask for the exact same things we asked for before,’” Young says. “I’m not saying don’t advocate for it, and I’m not saying I’m not for it. I’m just saying we have to have a bit of prudence and realize there have been some significant hits to our budget.”

Back to work

As North Carolina continues to relax its COVID-19 restrictions, both Asheville and Buncombe County officials say that boards and commissions will soon be able to resume operations. According to Day with the county, any group that can conduct remote meetings in accordance with state law is allowed to operate at its own discretion after checking in with county legal staff. But Buncombe leaders have not set a uniform date for boards to restart meetings, nor have they indicated when in-person meetings might resume.

Meanwhile, McDaniel says Asheville is taking a phased approach to virtual meetings, all of which will be held through the city’s new public engagement hub, throughout June and July. “Meetings that deal with time-sensitive matters or some other legal deadline or right will begin first,” she explains. “This will allow city staff to manage the tremendous workload of coordinating the technology, training the users and facilitating the meetings themselves.”

In-person meetings, McDaniel adds, will only resume once the city deems conditions “sufficiently safe” within state and county public health guidelines. She did not offer a timeline for when those conditions might be met.

“The cycle of life is going to be really interesting in the next six months to six years to see how we recover, not only as a city but as a nation,” Young says. “We’re going to need people’s input, but we’re also going to need people to look at the numbers with us and put politics aside.”

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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the Green Scene editor and a reporter for Mountain Xpress. His work has previously appeared in Capital at Play, Edible Asheville, and the Citizen-Times, among other area publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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