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Legal Eagles: Council Can’t Meet as Planned - What should you do? 

By John Phelps, NCLM Associate General Counsel

Have you ever been confronted with unanticipated circumstances that made it impossible for your municipal governing body to hold a meeting? Were those circumstances unknown until the last minute? This article recommends steps that may be taken in such a situation.

Suppose your town council has its regular meetings on the second Tuesday of every month at 6:00 p.m. in the council chambers at town hall. The governing body consists of the mayor and five council members and, consequently, four members of that group must be present to constitute a quorum to conduct business. At the council meeting in April, two council members indicate that they will not be present at the May meeting since they will both be attending job-related meetings out of town. The mayor and the other three council members state that they plan to be at the May meeting and conclude that there should be no problems with obtaining a quorum. So what happens on the second Monday in May? The mayor calls the town clerk from California, where she has just become a grandmother for the first time. (The baby arrived early.) She will not be back in the state for the next few days. It is clear that a quorum will not be present.

In this situation, the meeting has not actually been canceled since the council has not taken action to do so. However, by virtue of the circumstances, it has been de facto canceled. What actions should the town staff now take?

There are no North Carolina statutes that provide guidance on canceling council meetings. League attorneys recommend that reasonable steps be taken by a designated staff member (normally the clerk) to notify the members of the council, the general public and the media that an insufficient number of governing body members will be present at the designated time to constitute a quorum and that no business will be conducted. Since staff members are unable to call meetings, issues related to rescheduling the meeting must be handled later by the council. This may be as simple as calling a special meeting.

Under the facts described, notifying the remaining three council members may be done by phone or e-mail. For notifying the public and the media, we suggest that the designated staff member provide notifications to these groups similar to what would be provided if a special meeting were being called: Notice posted on the principal bulletin board of the town and, under these facts, on the door of the council chambers; mailing, e-mailing or delivering a notice to each newspaper, wire service, radio station, and television station that has filed a written request for notice of meetings with the town; mailing, e mailing, or delivering a notice to any person, in addition to the representatives of the media listed above, who has filed a written request with the town clerk. Additionally, if the town has a website, the notice should be posted there as well.

We also recommend that the designated staff member (preferably the clerk) actually appear at the meeting place at the designated time. This will provide an opportunity to explain the circumstances to any persons who may appear. Additionally, the clerk is then able to verify that at the designated time and place, the regular meeting was not held due to the lack of quorum. This information becomes the minutes of the regular meeting and is placed in the minute book.

Another situation that is not really unforeseen, but that sometimes sneaks up, is the regular council meeting that falls on a holiday. To remedy any potential problems, some towns adopt a policy to indicate that the regular meeting is automatically rescheduled to a date certain when it falls on a recognized holiday. This policy should be included with the schedule of regular meetings on file with the clerk.