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North Carolina bill seeks new openness from Council of State

North Carolina legislative building
Dave DeWitt
N.C. General Assembly

A 10-member panel led by Gov. Roy Cooper with other statewide elected officials usually meets monthly to sign off on such mundane government matters as state land purchases, bond sales and repairs of state buildings.

But the Council of State gained more attention during the coronavirus pandemic when the Democratic governor had to get the other members' OK before many emergency restrictions were carried out. That approval — or rejection — process was usually performed outside of public view.

Now legislation being considered in the final days of the General Assembly session would match council proceedings more closely with other local and state government bodies that comply with open meetings and public records laws.

The council was exempt from the state’s open meetings laws in 1979, but that exemption was repealed in 1991, according to legislative staff.

“For the last 31 years, it’s been a disorganized attempt (by the council) to actually comply with open meetings requirements,” said Rep. Tim Moffitt, a Henderson County Republican helping shepherd the bill.

After little debate, the bill was approved on a voice vote by a House judiciary committee on Tuesday. Among other things, the measure would require the governor, who leads council meetings, to formally hold a council meeting any time state law mandates the council’s “concurrence, advice, discretion, opinion or consent."

The Council of State is an “appointed governing body of the state, and it should have the same level of transparency and process as every other governing body,” said Republican Dale Folwell, a council member since 2017 when he became state treasurer, speaking in an interview this week.

The council does meet in person regularly, usually on the first or second Tuesday of the month, with the meetings open to the public. But when the governor needs the formal backing of members during an emergency or unforeseen event, it's often sought through an email request to the nine members. The decisions get played out in a string of email responses.

Folwell said he recalled a time where it took him at least five months to learn how other council members voted specifically on an COVID-19 issue early in the pandemic.

The measure, which would need both House and Senate approval before going to Cooper’s desk, also would require the council to adopt formal parliamentary rules by Oct. 1.

"Too often I and the other members who currently serve or have served in the past have been asked to vote by email with little notice and zero opportunity for public debate and input,” Folwell wrote in a letter last week to House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger. In the letter, he urged the bill’s passage.

Cooper’s office didn’t immediately respond to an email Tuesday seeking comment on the legislation.

Staff members of the council already produce written minutes of each council meeting and present that record to members before each ensuing meeting. The bill says all council proceedings must be chronicled in writing and be a public record.

Other current council members are Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson; Attorney General Josh Stein; Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler; State Auditor Beth Wood; Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey; Labor Commissioner Josh Dobson; Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt; and Secretary of State Elaine Marshall. Republicans currently hold six of the 10 council positions.

The council soon will gain additional powers during emergencies from language contained in the 2021 state budget law.

Starting in January, any state of emergency issued by the governor must receive the support of a majority of the other council members — otherwise, the emergency order expires in 30 days. The law directs the governor to release how each council member voted and publish that information on the same web site where his emergency order is published.

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