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Home builders and Realtor associations join fight demanding in-person access to City Council meetings

For months, the City Council has denied in-person public access to its meetings, citing COVID-19 protocols and City Hall renovations. CityView TODAY and two local associations say the city is breaking the law. The city disagrees.


Two heavyweight Fayetteville organizations have joined CityView TODAY’s fight for in-person public access to City Council meetings.

In a letter dated Wednesday, Fayetteville lawyer Neil Yarborough wrote on behalf of the Longleaf Pine Realtors Inc. and the Home Builders Association of Fayetteville that the City Council should find a meeting room large enough to accommodate the public.

The council has been meeting for months in a meeting room at the FAST Transit Center while renovations are being made to City Hall. The media and the public had been forced to sit outside the meeting room and listen live on a television that has poor reception. A CityView TODAY reporter has since been allowed inside the room, but the public remains barred.

The meetings are also broadcast remotely and are accessible by cell phone. Before gaining access, a CityView TODAY reporter had chosen to sit outside the council room so he could ask members questions during breaks or after a meeting concluded. The publication contends that reporters can do their jobs much more effectively if they are allowed inside the room. 

In his letter, Yarborough said “the city’s excuse for not complying fully with the (state’s) Open Meetings Law appears to be” because it is following COVID-19 protocols and because renovations to City Hall have forced it to find another, much smaller meeting room.

“It is incomprehensible with all the large open meeting spaces in public buildings in the City of Fayetteville that a larger room can’t be found which will reasonably accommodate the public ‘In Real Life,”’ Yarborough wrote. “This excuse or any other similar such explanation does not trump the requirements of the North Carolina Open Meetings Law.”

Reached at home Wednesday night, City Manager Doug Hewett said “the city’s position is that we have and we will continue to comply with the requirements of the law.”

In January, CityView TODAY Editor Lorry Williams and columnist Bill Kirby sent separate emails to Hewett asking that the media be provided access to city government meetings equal to that of local council members and staff. A reporter for the online publication had made similar requests earlier, citing open meetings laws.

On Jan. 10, Kirby was momentarily barred by police from entering the FAST Transit Center, where the council was holding a meeting. After talking with city officials, police let Kirby inside the building. Police called the matter a misunderstanding. 

Natalie Fryer, executive director of the Home Builders Association of Fayetteville, said it is “extremely important” for people to be able to attend City Council meetings in person. 

“As the letter stated, we need to observe what goes on during a meeting, in order to feel a part of the process,” Fryer said in an email. “Discussions and decisions that are made at City Council meetings can have direct impacts on the building industry and it is the association’s duty to convey those to our members. Not being in person makes that extremely challenging.”

Amanda Smith, president of Longleaf Pines Realtors Inc., said her organization believes the City Council is breaking the law by not allowing the public to attend its meetings in person.

“We are the largest trade association in the region, representing more than 2800 members,” Smith said. “Our business is the protection of private property rights, and in order to do that they must monitor city and county governments.”

In his letter, Yarborough cited the state’s Sunshine Law and the Supreme Court’s interpretation of it: “The purpose of the Open Meetings Law is a simple and salutary one. It is to insure that the business of the public be conducted in the view of the public so that the people may have the wherewithal to be better informed.”

Yarborough addressed the letter to Mayor Mitch Colvin and all nine City Council members. Hewett and City Attorney Karen McDonald were copied on the email, along with others. Neither Colvin nor any of the council members responded to a request for comment. Hewett said supply chain issues have delayed the renovations of City Hall. He said the council plans to be back in its chambers for a meeting on March 28.

On Jan. 25, CityView TODAY wrote a story saying the city was apparently breaking the law by refusing to let its reporters and the public attend council meetings in person. That contention is backed by lawyers for the North Carolina Press Association.

“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,” Beth Soja, a media and First Amendment lawyer for the firm Stevens, Martin Vaughn and Tadych, wrote in a brief.

“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.”

The entire council has attended some of its meetings in person.

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, Longleaf Pine Realtors Inc., Home Builders Association of Fayetteville