It was an exclusive ticket with less than two dozen seats available, but apparently it wasn’t the biggest show in town.
Charlottesville’s City Council met within City Hall’s council chambers Monday for the first time since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, but the landmark return to in-person meetings was quiet, with only a handful of community members and three news reporters sharing the room with councilors and staff.
Those who wanted to attend in person were required to preregister on the city’s website prior to the meeting. Due to social distancing protocols within City Hall that space seats six feet apart, there was room limited to a maximum of 23 members of the public.
Masking was encouraged but not required. Sena Magill was the only councilor who wore a mask. Vice-Mayor Juandiego Wade was absent from the meeting but no reason was given.
The virtual option was still broadcasted via Zoom and Boxcast for people who prefer to watch from home. The pre-meeting work session was only broadcasted virtually, with councilors in chambers but no in-person access for the public.
Despite a short delay in the work session as communications employees helped councilors figure out Zoom access on their iPads, there were limited issues with the hybrid meetings.
While Interim City Manager Michael C. Rogers, Clerk of Council Kyna Thomas and communications employees were present in person, all other city staff conducted business virtually.
Not many community members attended the meeting in person, but those who did voiced their enthusiasm to be back in council chambers.
Don Gathers said that it had taken “too long” to return to in person meetings, and that while he was grateful to be back, he was concerned with how the city is handling it.
“This indicates some level of progress, but I’m still concerned about the number of people they’re allowing at any particular time; 23 people is not at all representative of Charlottesville’s population,” Gathers said. “There’s a lot that needs to be done in terms of transparency, but it’s a step in the right direction.”
Most citizens attending in person spoke to the Council during the first “community matters” period of the agenda. Albemarle County resident Cabell Marshall presented large posters and diagrams to voice opposition against a planned unit development on Stribling Avenue.
A city resident of Crescent Halls, Alice Washington, voiced her concerns with inadequacies with the Crescent Halls bus stop. Afterward, Washington said it’s important to have face-to-face contact between community members and public officials, which is why she decided to attend the meeting in person.
“It’s easier to understand where someone is coming from when you talk to them in person. More can come across when you’re seeing someone’s face instead of a computer screen – our facial expressions, body language,” Washington said.
The meeting was NBC29 reporter Max Marcilla’s first in-person City Council meeting since he started covering City Council over a year and a half ago. He said he was impacted most by those making public comments.
“These are people who value the community, who love the community and we have not seen their faces because on Zoom, it is just their audio,” he said. “To see their faces and put faces to names and faces to issues is really important.”