John Welch

Commission Chairman John Welch speaks during the board’s Oct. 1, 2019, meeting.

WATAUGA — As Watauga County enters the month of April with COVID-19-related shutdowns and stay at home orders in effect for the foreseeable future, each municipality is deciding differently how to conduct its April meetings.

Per Watauga County’s March 20 state of emergency amendment, all public meetings will be conducted remotely for the time being.

County Manager Deron Geouque said that the Watauga County Commissioners’ April 7 (8:30 a.m.) and April 21 (5:30 p.m.) meetings will be held remotely on the Zoom video conferencing software and a dial-in number for public participation was to be posted on the county’s website by April 3.

Boone Town Manager John Ward confirmed on April 1 that all of the town’s public meetings are canceled until further notice with no timetable for re-evaluating. Ward added that if a meeting needs to take place, it will be held remotely with the ability to include the public.

Blowing Rock Town Manager Shane Fox said on April 1 that Blowing Rock is planning on having its 6 p.m, April 14 town council meeting remotely, with details to be released later. The meeting will have a smaller agenda, Fox said, and no other meetings are planned for the month. All other April board meetings are canceled. Blowing Rock hosts its meetings on YouTube.

The town of Beech Mountain has canceled several board meetings through April, but still has its 4 p.m., April 14 town council meeting planned as scheduled. On March 27, the full Beech Mountain Town Council passed a resolution amending its code of ordinances that delegated authority to the mayor in a declared state of emergency to provide for meeting procedures incorporating remote and electronic meetings technology. Many of the town council members took part in the meeting remotely. Beech Mountain hosts its meetings on YouTube.

According to the town of Seven Devils website, all meetings through April 28 are canceled, including the April 14 town council meeting.

Emergency decision-making powers in hands of fewer people

Citing N.C. General Statutes and following Watauga County’s lead, each of the county’s municipal governments is giving authority to its mayor or chairman to make amendments to the county’s state of emergency declaration.

Since a state of emergency was declared by Watauga County on March 15, the county in conjunction with the towns has added three new amendments that go beyond statewide orders. Short-term rentals were temporarily banned on March 26; playgrounds, recreational courts and picnic shelters in parks were closed on March 29; and property owners traveling to Watauga County were asked to self-quarantine on March 30.

Geouque said Watauga County Commissioners Chairman John Welch has been signing off on the state of emergency and additional orders in consultation with Geouque, under the authority of N.C. General Statutes § 166A-19.22.

Nathan Miller, a local Republican and former chair of the county commissioners, said this week that he would like to see more information and transparency around these decisions. Miller said he understands the state of emergency and the need to act fast, but said the powers could be abused.

“I’m not critical of declaration or emergency response,” Miller said. “I just wish the public was more informed ... the only communication anyone gets from the county is when they issue one of their declarations.

“It only takes 48 hours or less to call a meeting — the chair can get the public consensus of the other board members.”

Geouque said that rapid responses are required during this state of emergency.

“Rest assured, the Watauga County Board of Commissioners stand unified to respond rapidly to the COVID-19 crisis and take every necessary action to protect and safeguard the community,” Geouque said. “The county has been fully transparent, has followed N.C. General Statutes and local ordinances in the actions we have taken in partnership with our municipalities to date.”

Geouque said the county and municipalities have worked together to address the COVID-19 pandemic in conjunction with AppHealthCare, which is serving as the lead agency for disbursement of information.

“We hope that our coordinated communication efforts offer an additional level of reassurance to the public during a time with much uncertainty, that we are working together in a good faith effort to make the best decisions with a very fluid situation,” he said.

Seven Devils Manager Debbie Powers and Beech Mountain Interim Town Manager Robert “Bob” Pudney both said they are following Watauga County’s lead on state of emergency amendments, with Mayors Larry Fontaine and Barry Kaufman, respectively, making the decisions to amend the state of emergency notices without the full board’s approval.

“We participate with the towns and the county in these decisions,” Pudney said. “There’s quite a bit of communication sending draft language back and forth.”

Fox said that in Blowing Rock, while Mayor Charlie Sellers makes decisions on the state of emergency amendments, the town council has been involved in the conversation.

“They have been well informed with every decision that has been made prior to the announcements,” Fox said of the town council. “Communication is huge. In Blowing Rock, the mayor, town council, town manager and town department heads are in daily communication. Each day information is shared with all parties mainly through emails. While we are not currently meeting in person, no decision is made during this crisis that is not first shared with the full council and mayor. Again, let me emphasize, these emails are for sharing of communication, not for voting purposes.”

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(1) comment

Call me ishmael

Does a group email violate the open meetings law?

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