The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors and county authorities now may meet virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic without having to have a quorum in the same physical space.
At a special meeting Friday morning, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors passed an emergency ordinance to ensure continuity of government, and outlined procedures for public meetings, deadlines and succession, among other things. The change allows legislative bodies and county authorities to meet virtually. For the time being, the change does not apply to advisory bodies. That could change if public gatherings are still restricted in May, county spokeswoman Emily Kilroy said.
“The meetings will need to be open for public participation, and that may evolve over time as our technology gets put into place,” County Attorney Greg Kamptner said.
Kamptner and other officials had sent letters requesting a formal advisory opinion from Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring as to whether the COVID-19 pandemic is considered a “disaster” and if that would allow local governing bodies to adopt ordinances that would permit electronic participation in meetings.
Herring last week issued the document, stating that state code “permits public bodies that are unable to assemble in person because of the unique characteristics of the COVID-19 virus to meet electronically to make decisions that must be made immediately and where failure to do so could result in irrevocable public harm,” but that “the General Assembly did not intend to permit public bodies to handle all business through electronic communication means, even during a declared emergency.”
The 13-page Albemarle County emergency ordinance, which is modeled after one put together by members of Local Government Attorneys of Virginia, Inc., outlines essential governmental functions from 14 county offices and departments.
In Herring’s advisory opinion, there was a footnote that said he viewed the phrase “assure continuity in its government” similar to the emergency management phrase “continuity of government,” which are coordinated efforts taken to ensure the continuation of essential functions during an emergency.
“I think there was some consternation around the state that the attorney general included this footnote … and that’s why this ordinance has a section that is devoted to just identifying all of the essential functions that our county provides,” Kamptner said. “And it’s my opinion that it’s really you as the Board of Supervisors and your legislative capacity determining what functions the county provides that are essential.”
County-appointed authorities may also meet electronically under the emergency ordinance.
The emergency ordinance can last up 60 days, according to the state code, and Kamptner said he plans on bringing a more permanent ordinance before the board on April 15, which can last up to six months after the end of the disaster.
“It’ll also give us a couple of weeks to get information from county departments that we might need to incorporate into the longer-term workings,” he said.
The board approved removing the general public comment agenda item during the COVID-19 pandemic, which usually allows time for people to speak about topics that are not already on the agenda for a public hearing.
“Certainly the public would be free to communicate by email and other means to the board,” Kamptner said.
He said board members could read emails from the public out loud at the end of the meeting.
The board is piloting eComment at its April 1 meeting, which will allow people to provide public comments on upcoming agenda items online.
The feature is on the agenda website, albemarle.legistar.com, in the far right column. People can leave eComments up to 30 minutes before the start of the meeting. All comments are public and can be seen by anyone, and can currently only be made on public hearing items. People can also upload attachments.
Residents can also contact the board through email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail to 401 McIntire Road, 2nd Floor, Charlottesville, VA 22902.
The board also discussed authorizing the chair to a send a letter urging Gov. Ralph Northam impose stay at home provisions. Charlottesville City Council earlier this week sent a letter to Northam.
“What I’m hearing from physicians is a feeling that they are completely undermined in their ability to do their job and keep ahead of things because of the 10-person gathering business, and it leaves so much available for individual interpretation and creates an impossibility for enforcement in a real reality sense,” Supervisor Ann H. Mallek said.
Chairman Ned Gallaway said he wanted to know more about how a stay-at-home order could affect local government operations.
“People should understand they need to stay at home,” he said. “If they’re breaking that now, then we need a different level of enforcement. Then how does that tax our police department? How does that tax our emergency responders? Is this going to shut down our parks? I would expect it would.”
“I hope it does as soon as possible, actually,” Mallek said.
The board directed staff to bring back more information to its April 1 meeting, which will be held virtually.