Recent Blog Posts
Authored by: Frayda Bluestein on Friday, February 15th, 2019
Under the North Carolina public records law, government records are subject to public access unless an exception says they’re not. The law’s broad definition of “public records,” as interpreted by the courts, covers any record, regardless of format, made or received in the transaction of public business. GS 132-1. So, if a government agency receives a request for a record that relates to the transaction of government business, and there is no exception that applies, the agency must provide access (inspection and/or a copy) as required under GS 132-6. Over the years, the legislature has modified the public records law, primarily to create new exceptions. In 1989, the legislature added a new statute about settlements. GS 132-1.3 states that settlement records of certain types of actions are public records. It also restricts litigants and judges from sealing settlements in such actions, except in certain circumstances described in the statute. Unlike most of the other provisions in the public records law, the settlements statute seems primarily to affirm that settlements of the covered actions are public, and to restrict the sealing of settlements of those covered actions. This statute raises two issues, which are discussed below. Read more »
Authored by: Frayda Bluestein on Monday, January 28th, 2019
Social media has become a regular feature of the political landscape. From the campaign to the business of governing, elected and appointed public officials are getting their message out on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms. And they’re encouraging their constituents to join the conversation with comments, retweets, and likes. But the “social” part of social media is not always well-received. What happens when a government official blocks a critic from commenting? Two recent court cases have held that a governmental social media account is a public forum for free expression if the site broadly invites public engagement. See Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia v. Trump 302 F.Supp. 3d 541 (2018), and Davison v. Randall, 17-2002, 2019 WL 114012 (4th Cir. Jan. 7, 2019). These cases have held that government officials (in one case President Trump and in the other the chair of the Loudoun County board of supervisors) violated the First Amendment rights of citizens by blocking them based on the content of their comments. This blog post describes how government social media fits in the First Amendment public forum analysis and provides some tips for public officials who engage with the public via social media. Read more »
Authored by: Robert Joyce on Friday, January 25th, 2019
The candidate who appeared to win the election in North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional district has not been officially declared the winner. He has not taken his seat in Congress. And the state elections board that might declare him the winner has gone out of business. How did we get here?
The story has five interrelated threads. The first thread begins in 1901 and would exist even if there was no Ninth Congressional district controversy, but it has made the controversy much messier and far more confusing.
First Thread—Reconfiguring the State Board of Elections
In 1901 the General Assembly created a system for the administration of elections that lasted for 115 years. At the top was a five-member State Board of Elections. The governor appointed the members of the state board, from nominees put up by the parties. By statute, no more than three members of the state board could be of the same party. The governor would, of course, appoint a majority from his own party—three Democrats and two Republicans when the governor was a Democrat, as he always was in the early days. But when, in 1972, a Republican (Jim Holshouser) was elected governor for the first time in the 20th century, he did the same and the majority on the state board shifted from Democrat to Republican. Then in 1976 (when Jim Hunt was elected) the majority shifted back to the Democrats. Then in 1984 (Jim Martin) it went back to the Republicans, 1992 (Hunt again) back to the Democrats, and 2012 (Pat McCrory) back to the Republicans.
Then, in November 2016 a Democrat (Roy Cooper) was elected governor. The same pattern would likely have been repeated, but the Republican-controlled General Assembly decided to change the 115-year old system. Between Cooper’s election and his swearing-in, the legislature enacted a statute (which outgoing Governor McCrory signed) replacing the old five-member state board with a new eight-member state board, made up of four Republicans and four Democrats. In a suit brought by Cooper, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the eight-member board violated the North Carolina Constitution’s principle of separation of powers by depriving the governor of the degree of power necessary to carry out his duty to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” Read more »
Authored by: Trey Allen on Tuesday, January 22nd, 2019
The open meetings law mandates that public bodies keep “full and accurate” minutes of their official meetings. G.S. 143-318.10(e). Separate statutes expressly require “full and accurate” minutes for meetings of city councils and boards of county commissioners. G.S. 153A-42 (boards of county commissioners); 160A-72 (city councils). The School of Government recently published a Local Government Law Bulletin that describes the level of detail necessary for minutes to qualify as full and accurate. The bulletin also addresses the components that a local board’s minutes should routinely contain, the approval process for minutes, and the scope of a board’s authority to amend minutes previously adopted. Readers can download the bulletin free-of-charge here. This blog post provides a condensed version of the bulletin’s contents.
Authored by: Aimee Wall on Monday, January 14th, 2019
The North Carolina General Assembly (NCGA) returned to Raleigh last week to kick off the 2019-2020 biennium. Here at the School of Government, we are excited to announce that all of the legislative digests prepared by the staff at our Legislative Reporting Service will now be available for FREE to both government officials and the general public. Read on for more details about the changes to our services and website.
Authored by: David Owens on Monday, December 3rd, 2018
Ernie Bass owns a sizable parcel of vacant land on the edge of Mayberry that fronts a major road. He hunted and fished there for decades. The Mayberry bypass was recently completed on the edge of the property and an out-of-town investor approached Ernie about buying the parcel in order to place an automobile dealership there. Ernie is agreeable to the proposal, but his sale of the property is contingent upon it being zoned to allow the proposed new land use. The land is now in a medium-density residential zoning district. It must be rezoned to highway commercial to allow the auto dealership. So Ernie submitted a rezoning petition to the town.
As the town staff, planning board, and town council consider the proposed rezoning, does it matter what Mayberry’s recently adopted comprehensive plan says about the future development of this site? If so, how does the town go about plan consideration? Are there legal requirements to be met and documented?
In some states, the policy guidance set out in the plan is binding and must be followed by the town council. In other states, the council is free to ignore the plan. North Carolina follows a middle ground. The planning board and town council must consider the plan. Both boards must document that they have done so. But the plan is advisory only. The council may elect to make a rezoning decision that is contrary to the plan. State law sets procedural steps that the boards must follow. Any zoning amendment that is adopted without following those steps will be invalided if challenged in court. A new bulletin on plan consistency analysis from the School of Government, described below, sets out the law to be followed and reports on how cities and counties are doing so.
Authored by: Chris McLaughlin on Friday, November 30th, 2018
What percentage of North Carolina cities and towns rely on their counties for the collection of municipal property taxes? 60%? 80%? I don’t know the exact figure, but I’m certain it’s much closer to 100% than it is to 0%. And I think it’s far more common today than it was fifty years ago.
G.S. 160A-461 authorizes any and all North Carolina local governments to “enter into contracts or agreements with each other in order to execute any undertaking.” Thanks to this statute, a city is free to contract with the county for it to provide the city property tax billing and collection services and to reimburse the county for those services. Today’s blog answers several common questions about these type of city/county agreements.