Community members soon could get the chance to again publicly voice their thoughts on any topic to the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors.
When the board decided to meet virtually amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it approved removing the general public comment agenda item, which usually allows time for people to speak about topics that are not already on the agenda for a public hearing.
On Monday, the board is scheduled to meet virtually at 4 p.m. for a budget work session, where it’s also scheduled to discuss possibly putting “From the Public: Matters Not Listed for Public Hearing on the Agenda” back on its upcoming agendas.
At the end of their meeting this past week, supervisors briefly discussed the possibility of adding the comment period back. County Attorney Greg Kamptner told the board that the recommendation that general public comment be removed was, in part, because the county cannot control who’s calling in and what they’re speaking about.
“Just recognize that they have their three minutes and it’s a little bit different when they can do it by phoning in as opposed to coming down to Lane Auditorium and standing in front of you,” he said.
Supervisor Bea LaPisto Kirtley suggested they limit the general public comment period to only residents of Albemarle, or possibly to Virginia residents.
“That’s complicated because we have city residents and we have residents in our surrounding counties who may have matters of interest that pertain to Albemarle County,” Kamptner said. “I can take a look at it.”
Supervisor Liz Palmer said she is fine with adding it back and removing it again if issues arise.
“It’s hard to pull it back, Liz,” Supervisor Diantha McKeel said.
At least one county resident who had regularly utilized the general public comment period has expressed concern about the comment period being removed. In an early April email to the board, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, Dr. Charles Battig, a retired physician and policy adviser for the Heartland Institute, a conservative and libertarian public policy think tank, questioned the removal.
“The public is your link to those who pay your salaries, and expect you to be aware of issues which you choose to ignore or of which you might be unaware,” he said in the email. “… You may have no choice other than to follow the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] rules and halt in-person meetings. You do have the choice to open the online ones to public input.”
Some local government bodies, including the Hanover County Board of Supervisors, have continued to meet in person during the pandemic, while others, such as Virginia Beach’s City Council, are soon returning to in-person meetings.
While Albemarle has continued to hold public hearings over video conferencing site Zoom, some counties, including Orange and Henry, have resorted to soliciting public comments about budgets over the phone or through email.
Albemarle has added ways to provide public comment on agenda items, including an eComment feature on its website. This past week, a proposed rezoning for a child care center garnered 47 online comments, while proposals to waive rents for some of the county’s commercial tenants received 28 online comments.
County spokeswoman Emily Kilroy said they’ve also seen a large increase in the number of people watching the board’s meetings online.
“The number of people that are watching granicus live stream, which has been around for several years, is a fourfold increase, at least, from a really strong meeting pre-COVID-19,” she told the board.
According to 2020 live viewing numbers provided by Kilroy after the meeting, ahead of the pandemic, 157 people watched the March 4 meeting and 56 watched the Jan. 15 meeting. All of the other meetings earlier this year had fewer than 30 live viewers, she said.
About 230 people viewed the board’s two April regular meetings live on the county website, and 90 people on Zoom watched the board’s April 1 meeting. Numbers for last week’s meeting are not yet available.
To get the number to call into the Board of Supervisors’ virtual meetings, go to albemarle.org/bos and click on the virtual meetings link under the photo of the board members.