By Dave Russell
Down Home NC, a political action committee with a chapter in Jackson County, tried last week to call a January meeting of the Sylva town board. That would have been the result of the group’s plans to meet with town board members while complying with state open meetings laws.
A flurry of emails tells the story.
An invitation to town board members went out Monday, Dec. 16, in an email sent by Trevor Gates.
“I am writing on behalf of the local community organization, Down Home North Carolina, and our members,” the email said. “We would like to invite all of the Town Representatives (Mayor and Commissioners) to join us for a public town hall event ...an opportunity for members of the public to get familiar with our elected officials and get to understand our shared priorities as we enter a new year of work together.”
The meeting would be in the Community room of the Jackson County Public Library at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 16.
“I would like to attend,” town board member David Nestler replied to Gates Tuesday morning. “However, have you all thought about the legalities of hosting a meeting with a majority of the town board present? As I understand this can’t just be casually done ... it would need to be advertised, comply with open meetings laws, and would become an official session of the town of the Sylva where we would need to call the meeting to order, keep minutes, have staff present, etc. etc. Have you all considered this and figured something out?”
Down Home seeks answers
Chelsea Hoglen, a Down Home community organizer, emailed Sylva town Manager Paige Dowling asking her to provide details on holding a town board meeting.
“I am writing to you as a part of the local community organization Down Home NC. We are interested in hosting an event on Jan. 16 with the newly elected members of the Sylva Town Board to provide an environment for members of the public to meet and greet with their local representatives as well as ask questions about the town’s future direction,” she said.
“Mr. Nestler pointed out that there may be logistics that need to be in place for this to happen – I was wondering if you could provide more details on that matter.”
Dowling replied, “David is correct. If a majority of the board is present, this needs to comply with open meetings laws. Having three or more members present constitutes an official meeting in N.C.G.S. 143-318. I recommend attending regularly scheduled town board meetings or interviewing members individually. These meetings are held for the public.
“The Town Board meets the second Thursday of the month at 5:30 p.m. and the fourth Thursday of the month at 9:00 a.m. Our Dec. 26 meeting is canceled because it falls on a town holiday. Our January Town Board meetings are Jan. 9 at 5:30 p.m. and Jan. 23 at 9 a.m.”
Perhaps a series of meetings
Nestler suggested to White that Down Home schedule a series of meetings, inviting only two board members at a time, or the possibility of “a questions section to the end of town board meetings for members of the public ...”
White replied to Nestler, “Thanks for these recommendations, David! At this point, we don’t have more than two board members confirmed so we should be OK to move forward as planned. If you RSVP, you will be the first member of the board to confirm with us. If we get more than two confirmations, then we can split it into more than one meeting in order to avoid any legal conflicts.”
Nestler said he would attend the Jan. 16 meeting.
Meeting is a go
Also on Tuesday, Carrie McBane, a community organizer with Down Home, sent the Herald an email notification of the meeting.
“The members of Down Home NC would like to invite our neighbors to join us as we host a public Town Hall event for the recently elected Municipal Government that will be representing the Town of Sylva,” it said. “The event will provide an environment for members of the public to meet their local representatives, ask questions about what is on the agenda for the town, and make their voices heard to help guide the local officials as they set their priorities for the year ahead.”
In a followup email, McBane said Nestler has confirmed his attendance and the meeting will go on as planned.
“We are hoping that Greg McPherson will follow suit there as well,” she said. “If we have more than two members confirm their attendance we will hold separate meetings so as comply with and abide by open doors laws.’”
McBane said the issues to be raised will be those “the community cares about the most: transparency, public accountability and their future plans for the town of Sylva.”
Down Home endorsed Nestler and McPherson, who were reelected in November. They also endorsed McBane, who tied with Ben Guiney for the third seat, but lost to him on a coin flip.