Sunday, August 14, 2022

New Hanover County changes course on closed meeting about masks after realizing it should be open to public

New Hanover County Health and Human Services’ board members and staff did not join in a meeting about masks Tuesday as planned after it was determined the public should be invited to any official subcommittee meeting. (Port City Daily/Alexandria Sands Williams)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — New Hanover County is rescheduling a subcommittee meeting about Covid-19 trends intended to help inform its upcoming decision on the countywide mask mandate after determining just hours beforehand it was supposed to be open to the public.

Select members of the county’s health and human services board were slated to meet with health department leaders Tuesday at 10 a.m. to discuss Covid-19 metrics ahead of the vote on face coverings in two weeks. The data review has now been postponed to Friday to give the county time to advertise a public meeting and allow the community an opportunity to sit in and listen to the discussion.

Monday, the county reported an open meeting was not required since it was not a quorum of the members. County chief communications officer Jessica Loeper said NHC manager Chris Coudriet questioned that sentiment Tuesday morning, upon hearing about the meeting. It was soon after determined the group needed to oblige by open meeting laws since it was formed through an official vote by the health and human services board in full.

“Legal staff agreed and advised that it would be considered a public body and therefore a public meeting, even if the intent was to be a preliminary working group,” Loeper said. “Upon learning this, the subcommittee meeting was canceled by HHS staff to ensure the county is as transparent as possible and is in keeping with all open meetings laws.”

According to the UNC School of Government, a subcommittee of an appointed board constitutes as a public body when established for a policymaking purpose, among other reasons. At that point, a meeting would need to be open to the public if a quorum of the subcommittee is present –– not the health and human services board.

READ MORE: County manager suggests ‘education, encouragement’ as mask mandate alternatives, unbeknownst to health board

PREVIOUSLY: New Hanover County manager asks health leaders to explore ‘alternatives’ to mask mandate

Dec. 21, the board passed a motion to revisit the countywide mask mandate during its next regularly scheduled meeting Jan. 18. It also established a smaller workgroup to review Covid-19 data in depth and weigh mitigation strategies in the meantime. The subcommittee could possibly meet a second time ahead of the public hearing, depending on what members deem necessary.

The work session will now be held Friday at 3 p.m. in the health and human services building.

“The agenda will include the establishment of consistent metrics to be used to guide the decision making of the HHS Board in regards to the health rule for masking and also a review of the COVID data and impact upon the community,” Loeper said.

Chair of the health and human services board Dr. LeShonda Wallace said she expected to talk about the county manager’s request to explore “alternatives” to a mask mandate during the session, which she and other members were unaware of prior to a Port City Daily article that came out New Year’s Day. On Dec. 22, unbeknownst to the board, the county manager asked the health department leaders to come up with alternatives –– such as ways to educate the public about masks or encourage people to take the precaution voluntarily –– and be prepared to implement those.

“I have asked our team to provide multiple options that can be explored by the Health and Human Services Board, as opposed to just exploring the face mask health rule,” Coudriet said in a statement provided to PCD. “My intention is not to thwart the HHS board, but instead ensure they have a range of policy options to consider for in-depth discussion and debate. As we try to move into more of an endemic response to the virus, as opposed to an emergency pandemic, we have to think more about increased engagement, providing the right services at the right time, and educating our community — and not solely on mandates. I respect the HHS board’s authority to make the decision it deems is right, which may or may not include any of the alternatives staff presents. Ultimately, we just want to ensure the board has a variety of options and considerations in order to do what is best for our community now and as we move forward.”

The subcommittee consists of four health and human services board members: chair Wallace, nurse Dr. Stephanie Smith, physician Dr. David Zub and dentist Dr. Delma Kinlaw. Health and human services director Donna Fayko and health director David Howard will also be at the table along with pandemic operations manager Jon Campbell, newly hired to run the county’s PanOps team.

The public may attend in person at 1650 Greenfield St. or call into 336-218-2051; the meeting ID is 25579306#.

This article has been updated to include details of the meeting, a statement from County Manager Chris Coudriet and information from the UNC School of Government.


Send tips and comments to alexandria@localdailymedia.com

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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