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Fayetteville apparently breaking law by refusing public access to government meetings

The city barred longtime reporter and columnist Bill Kirby from attending a council meeting in person, and police briefly refused to let him into the building where the meeting was being held.


On Jan. 10, CityView TODAY reporter Bill Kirby and other members of the media were temporarily locked outside of the FAST Transit Center while the Fayetteville City Council met inside to discuss its business.

Kirby said a Fayetteville police officer greeted him at the door and told him the media was not allowed inside.

“By whose order?” Kirby said he asked the officer. The officer responded that the order came from James Nolette, an assistant police chief. At the time, people had just begun to gather outside the transit center to protest the death of Jason Walker, who was shot by an off-duty sheriff’s deputy two days earlier.

Kirby said he asked the officer if Nolette was inside the transit center. The officer said he was.

“Then you better go find Nolette now,” Kirby said he told Holt, “and when you bring him here, you might want to bring the city manager with him.”

About 10 minutes later, Kirby said, the officer told him he and the other reporters could come inside. Kirby, who has been a reporter in Fayetteville for 52 years, said the officer asked to see his press badge before allowing him in the building, even though the officer knew Kirby.

The incident happened after Kirby and CityView TODAY Editor Lorry Williams sent emails to City Manager Doug Hewett asking that the media be provided access to city government meetings equal to that of local board members and staff. 

Police called the incident a misunderstanding.

The city’s reasoning

The city says it is not allowing the public or the media to attend council meetings in person because it is following COVID-19 protocols and because renovations to City Hall have forced the City Council to find another place to meet; a much smaller room in the transit center that it says can’t safely accommodate everyone.

According to state law, government bodies must provide remote access to their meetings during the pandemic or other declared states of emergency. The city has done that, setting up a TV in the transit center’s second-floor lobby where the media can watch the council meetings remotely on a Zoom internet connection. The television has poor internet connection, the lobby is loud and trains often rumble past. 

The city’s solution to the pandemic and the City Hall renovations makes it extremely hard for reporters to do their jobs. It also appears to be illegal.

A brief by the Raleigh law firm Stevens, Martin Vaughn and Tadych, which serves as counsel for the N.C. Press Association, says the public and the media are entitled to attend government meetings in person if the entire government body is doing the same.

“If you are covering a public body that has resumed meeting in person but is forcing you to participate remotely, they are breaking the law,” wrote Beth Soja, a media and First Amendment lawyer for the law firm.

Soja noted that the pandemic has changed the way people interact with public bodies and public officials, with in-person board and council meetings giving way to Zoom meetings and webcasts live-streamed into homes or on phones.

“We have heard of public buildings that are almost fully locked down, barring the type of wander-into-someone’s-office visit that has been a hallmark of how some reporters cultivate sources and gather information,” Soja wrote.

As long as North Carolina remains in a state of emergency because of the pandemic, she said, public bodies can continue to meet remotely. But, she said, as restrictions ease more public bodies are returning to in-person meetings.

Government meetings have to be open to the public and media unless one or more of the public body’s board members are attending the meeting remotely, Soja said.

Having at least one member participate remotely helps ensure that the remote feed remains stable and discourages such things as board members mumbling or having conversations away from the camera, she said.

“Simply put,” Soja wrote, “a public body may not meet fully in person and exclude the physical presence of members of the public. If all members of a public body are present in person, that is simply a regular, official meeting under the “regular” Open Meetings Law. Members of the public must be allowed to attend in person.”

At the Jan. 10 City Council meeting – the one in which Kirby was briefly denied access to the building – all of the council members attended in person. 

Police, city respond

At another City Council meeting – on Dec. 6 – the council made the media sit outside the meeting room and watch it remotely. The council held a closed session at that meeting without announcing it on its agenda, which is required by law. 

Before the Jan. 10 meeting, Kirby said he wrote an email to Hewett and city spokeswoman Nacarla Webb complaining about the lack of access to City Council meetings. Previously, at a Jan. 3 council meeting, Hewett let Kirby report from inside the transit center’s meeting room. Before that meeting began, Kirby had been sitting in the lobby.

“Doug Hewett came out and said, ‘Are you coming in, or are you just going to sit out here?’’ Kirby quoted the city manager as saying. Kirby said Jodi Phelps, the city’s  new corporate director of communications, escorted him into the meeting.

The following week, police barred Kirby at the transit center’s door.

“I don’t fault the FPD officers,” Kirby wrote in an email. “They are great to work with, and courteous and respectful. I do fault Doug Hewett, (City Attorney) Karen McDonald and city communications officials.”

The city says it is not the reason Kirby was briefly barred from the building.

“The City Manager did not at any point direct anyone to prevent the media from entering the building to participate in a public meeting,” Phelps said in an email. 

In another email, she said, “It’s possible there was some confusion at the time the protesters were also outside, but that was resolved quickly and Mr. Kirby attended the meeting.”

Sgt. Jeremy Glass, a Fayetteville police spokesman, called the incident a misunderstanding. It happened as protesters began to gather outside the transit center.

“I spoke with Chief Nolette and his directive was to not let anyone in temporarily,” Glass said in an email. “The officer was not aware that media personnel were allowed in the building, but I was told that it was handled pretty quickly to correct the misunderstanding.”

Public banned from Ethics Commission hearing

In another incident, CityView reporter Greg Barnes was barred from entering City Hall, where the city’s Ethics Commission met over three consecutive nights to consider allegations against Police Chief Gina Hawkins. The Ethics Commission, which met almost entirely in closed session, dismissed all of the allegations.

The city gave the same reasons for not allowing the media and the public inside City Hall: major renovations and COVID protocols. It did provide Zoom access to the brief portions of the hearings that were open to the public.

All of the commission’s board members attended the hearing. The commission’s attorney, Bob Cogswell, attended remotely. Barnes was turned away at the door by a guard who had a list of names of people who could enter the building. Barnes watched the hearing from his vehicle in the parking lot and tried to interview hearing participants as they left the building.

Michael Pinkston, a downtown business owner and a City Council candidate, was also turned away from City Hall. A frustrated Pinkston said he felt that his constitutional and civil rights were violated.

On Wednesday, Williams, CityView TODAY’s editor, sent another request to Hewett asking for in-person access to the city’s government meetings.

“I understand the council had to make changes to its meetings when things shut down because of COVID-19,” Williams wrote to Hewett. “But as the council has started to ease back into more normal meetings, it seems fair to ask that it find a meeting space that could accommodate the public and the media.

“I believe the city has a room available or has access to space that would allow the City Council to respond favorably to this request.”

In an email Thursday, Hewett wrote: “We will work on a response to your request.’’

Other government bodies in Cumberland County, including the county commissioners and the towns of Hope Mills and Spring Lake, have returned to allowing the public and the media to attend their meetings in person as more people become vaccinated and COVID restrictions ease.

City Councilwoman Shakeyla Ingram said she plans to bring the matter to the council’s attention soon.

Phelps said the city is making an effort to provide seats at the back of the meeting room in the transit center “for the media to attend on a first-come, first-serve basis.”

Michael Futch, a reporter for CityView TODAY, was allowed inside the transit center meeting room for Monday night’s council meeting.

“The room in the Transit Center remains a temporary solution until March, or sooner, when Council will resume meeting in City Hall and there will be adequate space for media and the public to attend in person should they choose to do so,” Phelps said.

Greg Barnes is an investigative reporter for CityView TODAY. He can be reached at gregbarnes401@gmail.com. Have a news tip? Email news@CityViewTODAY.com.

Fayetteville, City Council, meeting access