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Editorial: Voting By Email Not Allowed

Managing Editor

There were numerous issues that cropped up over the last two weeks including the Town of Carolina Beach hiring a new Town Manager (and watching her turn down the job) and voting by email. That's not an all-inclusive list, but I'll get to the others next week.
A Town Council can't take action without holding a public meeting when the action is one that must be taken in open session. If so, that violates the North Carolina open meetings law. (Jacksonville Daily News Co. v. Onslow County Board of Education, 113 N.C. App. 127 (1993)
Last week, Wednesday July 24, Town Finance Director Dawn Johnson sent an email to the Mayor and Council.
That email stated, "Mayor and Council, I know there has been expressed interest in supporting the Lifeguards trip to the National Competition in California. This would involve flights, hotel accommodations, meals and car rental for approximately 10 people including the Fire Chief. The estimated cost for this trip will be around $10,000; however, there is a time constraint with issuing a budget amendment and making arrangements."
Johnson wrote, "Please let me know if you are in favor of this expenditure for the Lifeguards.  If the majority wishes I will proceed with allowing the ordering of plane and hotel charges. However, I need the majority’s approval.  Let me know how you wish to proceed."
A Town Council can't conduct the publics' business by polling individual members to vote one at a time outside the requirement of the State's Open Meetings Law which requires transacting the publics' business in a public meeting. Email is convenient, but it's not a "public meeting" where people can attend and hear their leaders carrying out the publics' business.
A budget amendment to the tune of $10,000 is certainly something that must be done in a public meeting.
To be clear, this has nothing to do with the purpose of the email; to get approval for funding travel expenses for lifeguards to attend a competition.
This has nothing to do with the Finance Director making the request for a majority of Council to approve of the funds.
The core issue is that Mayor Bob Lewis and Council members Steve Shuttleworth, Tom Bridges and Jody Smith responded to Johnson rather than advising that a public meeting had to be held.
Lewis responded via email on Monday July 29th, "I approve of the investment to send out ocean rescue team to Nationals."
Shuttleworth responded via email on Monday July 29th, "Dawn please take this as my yes vote on funding the life guard trip to California to compete. I would ask that we try and recapture some from the ROT. I also ask that they try and get some fund raising done to repay if they can."
Tom Bridges responded by email on July 24th, " I am NOT in favor of giving that money."
Bridges said he feels the Lifeguards should hold fundraisers to cover such trips.
Johnson said Council member Jody Smith responded to her expressing approval for the expenditure.
The overwhelming issue is, those elected leaders should have advised that a special meeting should be called where a vote could be held in a duly noticed open meeting.
Sure, the room may have been void of citizens because it's not a hot-topic zoning issue, but the spirit and clear meaning of the law protects the publics' right to attend if they so desire.
Seems minor, but elected leaders are informed when they take office about the rules governing open meetings and those rules are not complicated.
On a positive note, let's all cheer on our lifeguards and hope they perform well at the National Competition. They went to the Regionals and won big. A National win would be excellent! Good luck!