I am puzzled and perplexed by what happened at the public hearing on Duke Energy’s rate hike request before the North Carolina Public Utilities Commission on Sept. 27. The meeting took place at the Buncombe County Courthouse, scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. Beforehand, activists were outside on the plaza, peacefully demonstrating with signs and speakers. A little before 7 p.m., a stream of people entered the hearing room, and the meeting began. It was a good turnout, but the room was not full. There was plenty of extra seating.
Several hours later, well into the hearing, one of the people testifying stated that the outside doors had been locked at 7 p.m., and people showing up later were not allowed to enter. That was news to us.
When the hearing ended at 10:45 p.m., after more than 40 speakers had finished testifying (all speaking against the 16 percent rate hike), another person and myself asked the police why people were not allowed in after 7. They said the meeting room was full; the fire marshal’s limit was 180. This was puzzling, as I doubted 180 were in the room. There was still plenty of seating, and I have been to a hearing in that courtroom before where every seat was taken and people were standing, lined up along the walls and crowded in the back.
So I asked a Public Utilities staffer if there was such a fire marshal limit, why not hold the public hearing in a larger venue? The reason given was that the courthouse was where they could have adequate security.
Then I spoke with City Council member Julie Mayfield, who stated that she was locked out and was escorted in only after she texted Jason Walls of Duke Energy, who was in the hearing, and asked to be let in.
I left the building puzzled. In all the public meetings I have attended, I have never been turned away for coming in late, and in the instances where the room was full, people were at least allowed into the building or into a room with a video feed. So the question: Who ordered the police to keep people out after the meeting started? Why was the public kept out of a public meeting?
Follow-up led to the conclusion that it was the Buncombe County sheriff who made the decision to close the building to latecomers. Was this directive legal, keeping the public out of a public meeting at a county building? From now on, let’s be vigilant. Let’s make sure our public officials keep public meetings open to the public.
— Carol Stangler
Editor’s note: Xpress contacted the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office for a response to the letter, but Sheriff Van Duncan did not reply by press time. Also, Xpress’ news department was still awaiting information from the Sheriff’s Office about how it handled public access to the meeting as well. See the Sept. 28 online post “WNC Residents Rail Against Duke Rate Hike” (http://avl.mx/45t).