In accordance with G.S. 160A-364, a city has scheduled a public hearing on a proposed amendment to its zoning ordinance. Notice of the hearing has been provided in accordance with the statute, but it now appears that there will not be a quorum present on the day of the hearing. The council does not expect to take action on the ordinance at the meeting. May the city go forward with public hearing without a quorum? The answer is “no.” To fulfill the statutory requirement, a public hearing must take place at a properly noticed meeting with a quorum present, and any specific notice requirements for the hearing must also be met.
When a statute requires a local government to hold or conduct a public hearing, the purpose is to provide public input into a decision to be made by a local government unit or body. So it should be understood that the public hearing must occur at a legally convened meeting of the public body. Although there is no North Carolina case specifically on this point, a case from Georgia notes that a quorum is necessary for a public hearing because it is part of the official business of the board. Vaughn v. Duke, 207 S.E. 2d 509 (Ga. 1974) (invalidating a public hearing on a zoning ordinance due to lack of quorum). Indeed, “conducting hearings” is one of the activities of a public body that constitutes an official meeting under the open meetings law. In addition, parallel statutes for cities and counties provide that if a quorum is not present for a public hearing it is automatically continued until the next regular meeting without further advertisement.
Almost always, when a statute requires a public hearing, it specifies the timing and method of notice that must be provided. This notice is separate from and in addition to the notice that is required for the meeting at which the public hearing will occur. It is important to comply with the specific notice requirements that apply to a public hearing. Failure to do so will create a risk of invalidation, even if the notice for the meeting at which the hearing takes place meets the requirements under the open meetings law.
This discussion has been about public hearings that are required by statute. (A list of statutorily required public hearings is provided in a blog post here.) Sometimes a local government uses a public hearing or other type of forum to solicit citizen feedback even when no statute requires it. In this situation, it is up to the governing board, or other public body that calls for the hearing, to set the notice requirements and procedures for the hearing. For example, the city council or the planning board might establish a set of public hearings or community forums to receive feedback on proposed neighborhood land use plans. As part of the process, the board may designate specific council members and planning staff to attend. In this situation, there is no legal requirement for a quorum. If a majority of a public body attends, however, notice may be required under the open meetings law.