Albemarle County did not hold a single virtual meeting in 2019. In 2020, the county held 255 meetings via the internet as the pandemic moved the public’s business online.
Throughout much of 2020, people in Central Virginia have been able to watch or listen to local government meetings from their homes or wherever they have access to the internet.
As a result, more people are engaging with local government than ever before. Before the pandemic, many local public meetings were only available in-person or through meeting minutes.
“You can see how being able to attend from home without having to arrange for childcare or figure out how you’re going to get dinner on the table … but you could sneak off for 25 minutes to click in, how it just becomes that much easier,” Albemarle Spokesperson Emily Kilroy said. “The time commitment is that much less and the resources that go into attending a meeting when you don’t have to drive there are just so much smaller when it’s virtual.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has allowed localities to temporarily move meetings to a virtual setting, and many have taken to Zoom and other streaming platforms to continue their business under the watch of the public while also keeping distance.
Elected officials have had to navigate internet access issues, mute buttons, screen freezes and echoes as they switched to virtual meetings. The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors held its last in-person meeting on March 27 while Charlottesville City Council last met inside City Hall on March 25.
Both Charlottesville and Albemarle have livestreamed and recorded City Council and Board of Supervisors meetings for years. Now, more public meetings are more widely available with both localities livestreaming and then later posting recordings of meetings.
Resuming in-person meetings depends on a range of factors, including the lifting of emergency orders. Both Albemarle and Charlottesville are working to provide options for people to still be able to comment virtually once elected officials return to the dais.
While virtual meetings have made it easier than ever to watch local government in action and engagement has increased, not everyone is able to login to the meetings in real-time due to lack of broadband, affordability issues or the lack of familiarity with technology.
“That’s a barrier, that’s the drawback of virtual meetings in a pandemic is that not everyone who was used to coming to City Hall can have that same experience,” Charlottesville Spokesman Brian Wheeler said. “And the mitigation we do is to try to make it clear that you can call in via telephone.”
City meeting phone numbers can be obtained by registering at charlottesville.gov/zoom, and Albemarle numbers are available on its county calendar at albemarle.org/community/county-calendar.
Virtual meetings have not come without hiccups — localities have been Zoom-bombed, received derogatory messages in chat boxes and have had to deal with technical issues.
“Unfortunately, we had to turn those things off, so that makes it less authentic,” Wheeler said. “We realize that and we all want to be back in a place where we’re having those face-to-face interactions. I think we’ve tried to make the best of a really challenging situation.”
Each locality across the region is doing things slightly different. Fluvanna and Nelson counties have been holding in-person meetings for their Board of Supervisors and livestreaming them on YouTube; Louisa County has been holding in-person meetings for its Board of Supervisors and livestreaming them on its website; and Greene County has been holding virtual meetings for its Board of Supervisors.
Pre-pandemic, Albemarle began livestreaming Board of Supervisors meetings in 2015, and had been posting live audio since 2012. Charlottesville has been live streaming City Council meetings since 2007, and most recently updated its process in 2018, adding streaming on social media.
Both localities are now using Zoom for their public meetings, but have slightly different ways of broadcasting meetings to the public.
County Board of Supervisors meetings can be viewed on the county’s website or via Zoom, but members of the public are kept in a separate Zoom webinar that is receiving a livestream from the county staff and the board’s Zoom meeting.
“Zoom I think has made some changes, but people used to be able to really take control of the meeting in the early days of the pandemic, and then they would have to just end the meeting and the business didn’t get done,” Kilroy said. “We really wanted to set ourselves up for success, to be able to allow the board to meet fully and not have to worry about somebody popping in on them.”
She noted that the setup hasn’t been “foolproof,” but it has prevented meetings from being derailed.
Albemarle has multiple Zoom accounts. The county had previously contracted with Spectrum Integrators for AV upgrades in its office building, and the county has paid $105,000 since April for two Spectrum employees to assist with the board and Planning Commission meetings.
“It takes two from their AV team to operate, and that comes with some expense, but we felt like it was the best investment that we could make in balancing welcoming and inclusive meetings, our FOIA obligations and the First Amendment,” Kilroy said.
Other county commission and committee meetings are conducted over Zoom via its webinar platform, where only panelists are seen, and later uploaded to the Albemarle County YouTube account. Those additional meetings have at least two staff members involved — one to run the meetings and one to help with the technical side.
“It’s actually a net increase in terms of staff hours that go into supporting these meetings, but it’s important that we do so because otherwise it’s really hard to focus on the work of the public body and troubleshoot issues,” Kilroy said.
Zoom chat and question-and-answer features are not available on most city and county meetings due to prior incidents and access issues.
“When you have a lot of interaction happening just through text, whether that’s the chat or the Q and A, anyone that’s on the phone doesn’t know that, because they’re on the phone and they can’t see it,” Kilroy said. “Knowing that we have so much broadband connectivity access and affordability issues in Albemarle, it felt really important to us that we level set and ensure that everyone in the public meeting has the same access to all of the things.”
The board has also asked staff to develop a registration process and program for people who want to speak during the board’s general public comment period.
Charlottesville had previously been livestreaming only meetings of the City Council, Board of Architectural Review, Planning Commission and Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority on its cable access channel, social media and on a Boxcast channel that can be accessed through the city’s website.
“What changed was suddenly we had 30-plus boards and commissions, who if they were going to meet, had to do so virtually, and there needed to be a team to support that and capture a video recording,” Wheeler said.
City Council held off until May on letting additional commissions meet, after it initially adopted an ordinance allowing online meetings only if they pertained to the pandemic.
“I think part of our approach, because we have that mindset for broadcast, is that we expect a high quality product,” he said. “The product needs to be good enough that we can take the video and put it on TV. If you don’t have a TV broadcast arm, you’re probably not thinking that way.”
In 2018, the city purchased equipment and software to better livestream meetings, so the city only had new costs of about $4,500 for the Zoom license.
“The big cost is indirect — it’s the diversion of staff to do jobs we didn’t do before the pandemic,” he said. “We weren’t in all these meetings, and now I’ve got all five of us in my department trained and four of us are doing it all the time. … It’s not a dollar cost, because we already had those staff, but it means we’re not doing some other things.”
Charlottesville and Albemarle School Boards have also been meeting virtually, and the school divisions have held additional virtual meetings.
From an academic life point of view, county schools spokesman Phil Giaramita said, the pandemic has had a personal impact on families, as education is happening in the home, and that has “raised the profile of education to extraordinary heights.”
“I think folks have always cared about education and kids, but now it became much more personal, much more urgent, much more intense,” he said. “We’ve seen that show up in the public comments, in the school board meeting attendance and in the attendance at other meetings.”
Before the pandemic, between 15 and 20 community members would have been a strong turnout at county school board meetings.
“It was not unusual in the past year for us to have more than 1,000 people online, and I think our high watermark was a meeting in which there were more than 2,000 people online,” he said.
Overall engagement has increased dramatically, Giaramita said, including in survey responses, emails to the division and board members and they’re hearing from people who previously hadn’t spoken before.
“These are all tough calls when you’re trying to balance public health, and you’re trying to balance the social and emotional health, and the academic progress of kids,” he said. “The more people you hear from, and the more different people you hear from, the better the decisions are and the more confident you are in that you’re making the right decisions.”
City Schools Spokeswoman Beth Cheuk said they’ve seen more engagement as well, as part of the convenience of joining from the location of one’s choosing and safety during the pandemic.
“One other upside has been the chance for experts from other areas to join meetings without travel or associated costs,” she said. “One example of this occurred at a public forum for school safety, when a team from Toronto presented about their model and answered questions.”
Post-pandemic, or once the state emergency declaration is lifted, elected officials will have to return to meeting in person.
State law allows for members of public bodies to participate electronically in meetings two times per calendar year due to personal matters, if the body has adopted a policy. Gov. Ralph Northam signed a new law last month that now allows two virtual meetings, or 25% of the meetings held per calendar year rounded up, whichever is greater.
A bill allowing members of public bodies to participate electronically when a local or state of emergency is declared to provide for the continuity of operations has passed the House and Senate and is in front of the Governor. State law allows for bodies to meet virtually only when a state of emergency is declared and they can only meet about the emergency.
Both Albemarle and Charlottesville are working to provide options for people to still be able to comment virtually.
Kilroy said the county is upgrading equipment in Lane Auditorium that will allow members of the public to speak from outside the auditorium and provide sound to those in-person at the meeting.
In the city, Wheeler said they are also making changes, including new equipment in five different rooms in city hall that will have video conference capabilities and could facilitate remote participation and upgrades in CitySpace. But he said his department won’t be able to support hybrids of all city meetings at the level they are now.
“I don’t know if that’s what is going to be asked of us, but we’re getting the hardware ready to support it at some level, and then we’ll have to visit how much interest there is after the pandemic and after City Hall reopens,” he said.