• 61°

Editorial: Has technology changed meaning of ‘public meeting’?

What is a public meeting, anyway?

After some boards, councils and commissions met remotely for months and as some are continuing to meet only via video conferencing software, it’s worth wondering whether public officials are having important discussions in ways not easily available to the public. While it’s usually not their intent, officials often carry on important policy conversations outside of public view.

If a text message thread exists between all Salisbury City council members and the city manager, it’s certainly a public record, with some understandable exceptions for personnel matters and other items spelled out in state law. But do those conversations veer into the definition of public meetings?

Prior to COVID-19, most might have quickly answered “no,” but the only difference between a text message thread and the city council’s regular meetings conducted via Zoom is communication is typed rather than spoken and there’s no live video feed. All council members are still gathered in one place, a text message conversation, and likely talking about something concerning their duties as elected representatives.

Consider the following exchange between City Manager Lane Bailey and city council members on Nov. 13. In a previous era, council members might have gathered in City Hall to receive an update on a rapidly unfolding situation. Alternatively, Bailey might have called all of them and allowed the press to tune in. Now, it just happens via text.

Bailey (after discussion on previous day about heavy rain): River pump station access flooded last night. Sat around 3 a.m. It should peak and the water should recede pretty quickly (possibly late Saturday or early Sun). SRU anticipated flooding and planned accordingly.

Tamara Sheffield: Thanks for the update … I was curious.

Karen Alexander: Thanks for update. Did we get photos to use in lawsuit as it progresses?

Bailey: Yes, we are logging photos, marking water levels, etc.

Al Heggins: Did the flooding shut down the station? Or just the access?

Bailey: We have not cut power to pump station, just lost access. We may have to cut power at some point, but reservoir and tanks are full.

David Post: What a nutty way FERC (the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) thinks we should operate a water system. Wonder if any human from FERC is close enough to take a boat ride to experience this first hand.

Bailey (several hours later): It’s now looking like peak flooding will be around 8 to 9 p.m. tonight. It looks like we will need to cut power to plant over night. This is trending like this past February event. SRU is well-prepared.

Alexander: Thanks for update. Will cutting the power overnight result in service interruption to our customers?

Bailey: They should not see any change in service. Thanks and reservoir are full.

Heggins: Our reserve is good for how many days?

Bailey: We have three-to-four-day supply of water.

The exchange continued and the city emerged from the November flooding OK, but it’s clear this is a matter that concerns a large swath of the population in Rowan County — anyone who receives water from Salisbury-Rowan Utilities.

For bodies like the Salisbury City Council, the state defines an “official meeting” as an “assembly, or gathering together at any time or place or the simultaneous communication by conference telephone or other electronic means of a majority of the members of a public body for the purpose of conducting hearings, participating in deliberations or voting upon or otherwise transacting the public business within the jurisdiction, real or apparent, of the public body.” Whether or not council members intend to vote on something is not necessary.

Is the gathering of council members in a text message thread sufficient to fit the state’s definition? That sounds like a good debate for attorneys in a courtroom, but we’d be inclined to say, “Yes.”

Of course, city staff might reasonably ask, “How are we supposed to notify the public about a text message thread?” City officials could add a reporter to the text message thread, but then how would the Salisbury City Council go into closed session when it’s allowed? It’s complicated — and certainly not a matter only Salisbury faces. It’s a matter facing all elected officials.

Technology has allowed local government to continue the public’s business even as a pandemic brought recommendations against gathering in groups. Policy makers at the state and local level, however, must consider how technology might be shutting the public out from important discussions.



Blotter: Man accused of stealing car, crashing it


Man faces new charge of attempted murder for father’s shooting


Gov. Cooper lifts indoor mask mandate for most situations, gathering limits


Barnes gets new punishment of two life sentences in Tutterow couple’s 1992 murder

High School

High school football: State’s top honor goes to Jalon Walker


Scout’s Honor: With dedication of flag retirement box, Salem Fleming earns Eagle Scout rank


North Carolina king, queen of NCAA lacrosse tourneys


Kannapolis seniors walk elementary schools


Local real estate company employees come out in force to build Habitat house


Quotes of the week


Auditors find oversight lacking for $3 billion of state’s pandemic aid


When will gas situation return to normal?


Rowan native Shuping posthumously receives Concord Police Department’s Medal of Valor, Purple Heart


GOP measure on penalties for rioting draws fire


Black high school softball player told to cut hair


State shows 303 COVID-19 deaths in Rowan


CDC: Fully vaccinated people can largely ditch masks indoors


One arrested, another hospitalized in Castor Road stabbing

China Grove

China Grove Roller Mill open for tours Saturday


Facing personnel deficiencies, local fire departments request tax rate increases


‘Panic buying’ creates gas supply shortages locally, statewide after pipeline cyberattack


Twice as nice: Planet Smoothie opens alongside Cold Stone Creamery in co-branded store


Spencer board gets update on South Iredell rat problem


West Rowan teacher awarded $15,000 outdoor learning grant