The minister who offered the invocation atthe most recent Hope Mills Board of Commissioners meeting must have had an idea about an entry on the agenda. He included Jesus’ admonition in the book of Matthew that “Every… household divided against itself will not stand.” Moments later, commissioner Jessie Bellflowers had a proposed resolution added to the agenda; that Mayor Pro Tem Mike Mitchell be censured for cause.
Later, Mitchell, reading from a prepared statement, spoke of his concerns that some commissioners had been taking part in private discussions of town business on a private Facebook group known as the Hope Mills Chatter. Mitchell felt such closed discussions represented “social segregation of elected officials” that could be a violation of North Carolina’s Open Meetings law.
He did not mention them by name, but it’s widely known that Bellflowers and town board members Meg Larson and Jerry Legge were involved.
Knowing it would likely be defeated, Mitchell made a motion that commissioners not participate in group emails or closed online discussions because they represent a quorum of the governing body.
That’s when town attorney Dan Hertzog Jr. intervened. He cautioned that he agreed with some others that the virtual Facebook discussions did not necessarily violate the law.
Mitchell with drew his motion after Hertzog agreed to research the matter further.
Bellflowers introduced his motion that Mitchell be censured for behavior. He insisted that online, closed-group discussions are not considered official meetings. He said they did not engage in coordinated, simultaneous discourse. Bellflowers said none of the issues were likely to come before the board of commissioners for official action. “My first amendment rights have been challenged, and I take it personally,” said Bellflowers.
Commissioner Pat Edwards said this had become a “sore spot” for her and was the most recent of several conflicts among board members.
Commissioners Larson and Legge agreed with Bellflowers that Mitchell had raised an issue that had been be labored for months.
Mitchell said he was proud of his position, adding,“If you want to move on with this censure, that’s OK.”
The board did so, and the censure resolution passed on a 3-2 vote with Mitchell and Edwards dissenting.
In what is often the case, attorneys – even those who concentrate on communications law – disagree among themselves in nuances of the state’s open meetings and public records statutes. There is no misunderstanding of the preamble to the law, which states, “Where as the public bodies that administer the legislative, policy-making, quasi-judicial, administrative, and advisory functions of North Carolina and its political subdivisions exist solely to conduct the people’s business, it is the public policy of North Carolina that the hearings, deliberations, and actions of these bodies be conducted openly.”
PHOTO: Hope Mills Mayor Pro Tem Mike Mitchell