Tuesday, June 6, 2023

New Hanover County Democratic Party looks to bar media from meetings amid identity crisis

An officer of the New Hanover County Democratic Party told members on Facebook the leaders would no longer allow media into its meetings, despite its meetings being labeled as “open.” (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands Williams)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– The New Hanover County Democratic Party is prohibiting the press from attending any of its meetings, according to a social media post, after Port City Daily sat in on a contentious executive committee session Monday and published an article that quoted criticisms from attendees. However, criticism isn’t limited to onlookers; party leadership are dissenting publicly and privately, online and in-person, as the chapter reckons with an identity crisis.

The ban was not directly communicated to Port City Daily. A call, email and text to the party chair went unreturned. However, second vice chair Susanne Werner wrote on the official New Hanover County Democrats Facebook group Tuesday: “We would very much like to know who invited the media [to the meeting]. We did not and in hindsight realize we had no obligation to admit [them] to the meeting; in fact we now know media is prohibited from attending any of our meetings. It will not happen again.”

Werner did not respond to emailed inquiries Friday.

Open meetings laws do not apply to political caucuses as they do government bodies. The only scenario in which a reporter might have an absolute right to attend is if a meeting is held in “an unquestionably public facility,” according to N.C. Press Association attorney Amanda Martin.

There is no current rule in the Plan of Organization –– the Democratic Party’s guidebook –– regarding the press. Per its guidelines, the party is supposed to publicize its public meetings for all interested people but also defines the meetings as “open to all registered Democrats.”

The executive committee can also decide to enter a closed session at any time, asking attendees to leave, as they did Monday. It’s unclear whether party officials can, in accordance with the chapter’s policies, turn anyone away from a meeting while it’s still considered open.

An internal reckoning

The local Democratic Party chapter is in the midst of an internal dispute it wants kept out of the public eye. At the last meeting, officer’s raised voices and arguments were heard outside the closed session, though the content of the discussion was inaudible behind the closed doors.

The decision to go into closed session happened abruptly after receiving criticism from some attendees for not taking enough action while the GOP organizes successful anti-critical race theory efforts. Democrat-elected school board member Judy Justice was among the group. The officers had no discussion and gave no explanation as to why the business would be discussed privately. The members never finished addressing all items on the proposed agenda, which included topics that brought out a small crowd of education activists. The officers were slated to tackle board of education issues, a drafted resolution on sexual abuse in the public school system, and a review of officer decorum.

Several members of the chapter’s official Facebook group were either removed, censored, or banned from posting in the days following the heated meeting. At least one current party officer is no longer a member of the page, according to a review of its members.

The page states moderators reserve the right to remove “the content and, if necessary, the member” when posts are unproductive, disrespectful or irrelevant to the Democratic Party.

Some voters are now worried the Democratic Party’s identity crisis will reflect on the ballots if issues aren’t worked out ahead of the next election. In a purple county, party efforts are crucial to sway the nearly 40% of unaffiliated residents in their favor.

Media bans

It’s not uncommon for political figures to ban reporters in an effort to control narratives. During his 2016 campaign, President Donald Trump created a blacklist of news organizations that were denied press credentials at his events. On the opposite end of the political spectrum, U.S. Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez similarly excluded journalists from town hall events in 2018 that were advertised as open to the public. She explained her reasoning was to protect vulnerable populations who would be discussing sensitive topics, such as immigration and domestic abuse.

The New Hanover County Democratic Party is hosting its next regular meeting Monday at 6:30 p.m.

Update on June 21: The New Hanover County Democratic Party postponed its June meeting, citing Covid-19 protocols. It also announced its July meeting will be held over Zoom.

Send tips and comments to alexandria@localdailymedia.com

Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands is a journalist covering New Hanover County and education. Before Port City Daily, she reported for the award-winning State Port Pilot in Southport. She graduated from UNC Charlotte and wrote for several Charlotte publications while there. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at alexandria@localdailymedia.com or on Twitter @alexsands_

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