‘Just winging it right now’: Salisbury-Rowan NAACP calls for return to in-person City Council meetings

Published 12:10 am Sunday, March 6, 2022

SALISBURY — Salisbury-Rowan President Gemale Black is calling for the City Council to return to in-person meetings and allow public attendance after he was turned away from last week’s meeting.

Black told the Post he and another person were denied entry into City Hall during the Salisbury City Council meeting and was told by an officer, “They are not letting anybody in the council meeting.”

“As vital decisions are made concerning the well-being of our residents and community, particularly during a council meeting, the people who live, work and engage in activities throughout the city of Salisbury should have access to attend in-person council meetings,” Black said in an emailed statement to the City Council. “Residents’ civil rights were violated on Tuesday, March 1, 2022, when denied access to public property for the use of engaging our local political society to gather information. No person, who wants to attend in-person council meetings, should be excluded.”

The City Council has meet almost entirely remotely since April 2020. Exceptions include the July 20, Aug. 3 and Dec. 7 regular meetings as well as the council retreat on Jan. 27 and 28.

Council members opened council chambers for last week’s meeting only to council members and city staff. The Post also was allowed to attend in person. The decision was based off the county’s “high” level of COVID-19 spread at the time, Mayor Karen Alexander said in an email.

“The trends suggested that COVID-19 numbers were improving, but were not reliable enough to return to fully in-person meetings on March 1,” Alexander said in a response to Black. “City Council decided that in-person attendance at the March 1 meeting would be limited to council members, a few staff and the press, and that the public could attend and participate remotely (via Zoom). The public’s ability to participate in the March 1 meeting was the same as it had been since April 2020 with the exceptions noted above.”

But the consensus agreed upon before last week’s meeting was not consistent with a notice posted to Facebook ahead of the March 1 meeting, Black said, because the city agreed only council members would meet in-person before later noting “limited staff” and the press were allowed.

In response to Black’s letter and email, Interim City Manager Brian Hiatt told Black he detailed a discussion with Rowan County Public Health Director Alyssa Harris to council members at the Tuesday meeting. Hiatt said last week Rowan County was expected to move out of the high-risk category within days, meaning some COVID-19 restrictions could be loosened according to the CDC. Rowan County moved out of the category a few days after the meeting.

The City Council plans to hold its March 15 in-person with limited attendance to accommodate social distancing. It anticipates allowing at least 22 public attendees, but no masking requirements have been announced.

Alexander said a notice about capacity limitations and mask guidance will be released next week. Virtual participation will be allowed as well.

Black said neither Hiatt nor Alexander have fully answered questions. He requested the council open meetings to the public with safety guidelines in place, a publicized notice of attendance capacity and a timeline for a return to full capacity. Black told the Post there should a better strategy than discussing the issue during the city manager comments portion of the meeting.

Black also criticized City Council members for citing COVID-19 concerns despite not properly wearing masks during the meeting or wearing them at all. Additionally, City Council chambers were full with members of the public on Dec. 7 when new council members were sworn in amid worse COVID-19 number.

“They’re just winging it right now,” Black said. “If the council is meeting in public, why can’t the people be also? What about the person that doesn’t have the internet access or is unable to get online but they can make it to council chambers?”

Alexander said the council does not have a definitive timeline for a full, in-person return but “is eager to do so” as it continues to base decisions off COVID-19 health guidance. Alexander also praised virtual accessibility for council meetings throughout the pandemic and said that accessibility will be retained when the pandemic ends.

“I am happy we can still offer both virtual and in-person to citizens so that we are never limiting access and providing the safest way possible,” Mayor Pro Tem Tamara Sheffield told the Post.

If council members feel they’re safe enough and can make decisions in the chambers, let the people come back, too, Black said.

“It’s time for them to see the public faces,” he said.

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About Natalie Anderson

Natalie Anderson covers the city of Salisbury, politics and more for the Salisbury Post. She joined the staff in January 2020 after graduating from Louisiana State University, where she was editor of The Reveille newspaper. Email her at natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com or call her at 704-797-4246.

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