For the past several weeks, Wardtown citizen Ken Dufty has been challenging the legitimacy of the Comprehensive Plan Review Stakeholder Group (PRSG). In a recent letter to County Attorney Bruce Jones, Dufty asks whether last week’s meeting of the PRSG may have violated the state’s Open Meeting Law.
I am writing to ask for your legal opinion regarding whether or not a recent meeting of the Comprehensive Plan Review Stakeholder Group (PRSG) was subject to the Open Meetings Law which requires that a meeting of a public body be officially advertised and noticed in the manner required by code.
As background, in 2012 the Northampton County Board of Supervisors created the Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee (CPAC) a public body charged with advising county leaders on the economic section of the draft of an update of the 2009 Comprehensive Plan. At approximately the same time, a Comprehensive Plan Stakeholder Review Group (“PRSG”) was created after citizens who may be interesting in participating in the 2009 Comprehensive Plan update review process were invited to attend a public meeting at the Northampton County Administrative Complex in Eastvillle. Note that the CPAC issued its final report about one year after it was formed, and the group was dissolved by the Northampton County Board of Supervisors in 2016, upon information and belief.
Fast forward to August, 2017 when a handful of private citizens were sent letters by Northampton County Planning Department’s Ms. Graves inviting them to become members of the PSRG. Interestingly, at least 4 of the new members were members of the CPAC. Shortly thereafter, I was forwarded an invitation that a friend had received, with the stated expectation that I would be receiving a similar invite soon. After waiting 4 days, I contacted Ms. Graves and informed her that I would like to be a part of the stakeholder group, but I was advised in response that the deadline” to be appointed to that group had expired. I in turn questioned how I could miss a deadline that was never published, never announced, and was apparently arbitrarily set by the Planning Department acting on behalf of the Planning Commission, to the best of my knowledge.
Anyway, in that invitation, respondents were asked to pick one of three dates that would be most suitable for that respective individual to attend a meeting of the PRSG which had now grown to approximately 84 people. Again, only because I was informed by someone who was recently invited to join the PRSG, I learned that a date for the meeting of the PRSG was set for Wednesday, September 13, 2017 at 6:30 pm in the Board Chambers. Note that after I sent out my own personal message to our email distribution list that there was going to be a public meeting of a public body at that time, nearly a dozen citizens showed up, but they were not allowed to speak, offer input, or engage in any discussion regarding the finalization of the draft Comprehensive Plan.
Again, upon information and belief, the meeting was never advertised (if it was, I am among the many who missed it) and it seems as if proper notice pursuant to the Open Meetings Law was not followed.
I am asking for your opinion on whether or not there was a violation of the Open Meetings Law for this meeting, and respectfully direct your attention to one of the most comprehensive legal sources on land use law, the Albemarle County Land Use Law Handbook and particularly the attached section on the Open Meetings Law and FOIA. Even a cursory read of this section, to this lay person, seems to support the contention by many that the meeting of the public body (note the definition of “public body” in the attached reference) known as the PRSG and conducted by the Northampton County Planning Department and attended by Mike Ward, Planning Commissioner should have been advertised, noticed, and made fully open to the general public, who were subsequently largely unaware that this important meeting was taking place.