Sunday, June 4, 2023

Gag order: Sunset Beach considers banning Council members from speaking with public, media, and others

The Town of Sunset Beach is considering a policy that would prohibit council members from speaking to members of the public without first obtaining permission from the entire council to do so.

Sunset Beach's Town Council discusses a proposed recommendation that would prohibit councilmember's communication with the public at its regular meeting Tuesday. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Town of Sunset Beach)
Sunset Beach’s Town Council discusses a proposed recommendation that would prohibit councilmember’s communication with the public at its regular meeting Tuesday. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Town of Sunset Beach)

SUNSET BEACH — Sunset Beach is considering revising its communication policy for Councilmembers, a move that could essentially gag elected officials from speaking out on divisive issues.

The revision would prohibit an elected councilmember from communicating with outside elected or appointed officials, media, and the public on their own accord.

RELATED: Sunset Beach councilman alleges state law violation in ‘political’ rejection of mayoral appointment

Under the proposed recommendation, Councilmembers could only communicate to other local officials and members of the media after receiving explicit permission from the entire Council.

Tensions in Sunset

This proposed policy amendment comes after months of turmoil in Sunset Beach.

In March, Council voted in a closed session to fire its town administrator. Sunset Beach’s former Mayor, Robert Forrester, resigned shortly after.

Forrester’s departure left Council with a mayoral vacancy that led to a subsequent string of controversies. In July, Council voted on whether or not to appoint Gregg Weiss as mayor, the town’s lone applicant. With Councilman Rich Cerrato absent, the vote was split 2-2 and Weiss was not appointed. At the same meeting, Councilman John Corbett made a motion to keep mayor pro-tem Mark Benton as mayor pro-tem until November 2019.

Cerrato later said town staff and Council misinterpreted Corbett’s motion to mean that Benton would fill the mayoral vacancy. In an internal letter, agenda items and meetings, Cerrato accused staff and other councilmembers of being complicit in a system of back-door politics and corrupt schemes. He alleged North Carolina’s Open Meetings Law, Public Official Vacancy Statutes and Sunset Beach’s ethics policy had all been violated.

In a meeting held last month, Cerrato attempted to discuss his allegations against councilmembers and staff. His agenda items to discuss these issues were removed at the beginning of the meeting.

Weiss, the town’s lone mayoral contender denied in July, was later appointed by a unanimous vote on Oct. 1.

Revised Communications Policy

In an apparent response to Cerrato’s commentary, Corbett introduced a new recommendation to the town’s communications policy Tuesday. This recommendation was based on an initial recommendation by Councilman Charles Nern in June.

“I was sort of volunteered slash assigned to make an effort to re-craft that in a slightly more acceptable form,” Corbett said Tuesday.

Corbett’s recommendation states:

“Move to approve a Communications Policy Amendment that no member of the Sunset Beach Town Council shall communicate with State and County officials or the press on Town business without prior approval of the Council. If circumstances are such communications are unavoidable, the Council Member must clearly state the Member is 4.e Packet Pg. 12 2 communicating as an individual, not a Council Member, without the approval of the Town Council.”

While discussing the change, Councilwoman Jan Harris questioned why she wasn’t able to communicate publicly.

“If we have voted and passed something, why can’t I speak on it?” Harris asked Council.

Councilman Cerrato classified the attempt as a gross abuse of power. “First of all, never ever implement a policy you cannot enforce,” Cerrato said.”Especially one that violates a basic right to free speech.”

According to the town clerk, Lisa Anglin, Sunset Beach’s new mayor will attempt to revise Corbett’s proposed revision. Despite the potential for legal decision-making, the town’s attorney was not present at Tuesday mornings meeting.

When asked about potential First Amendment issues, Anglin said the town’s attorney had not reviewed the proposed policy.

Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee at

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