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City Council grapples with transparency, resources for electronic meetings

Some of Charlottesville’s board and commissions could soon get back to work electronically.

City Council met virtually Wednesday to discuss which boards it would allow to meet electronically amid the coronavirus pandemic and how to maximize access to the meetings.

While the council backed continued live broadcast on the city’s public access channel for itself and the Planning Commission, Board of Architectural Review and the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority, it is seeking more information on staff’s capacity to run broadcasts of other meetings.

Communications Director Brian Wheeler said there is time to facilitate other meetings beyond the four that are typically broadcast, but different types of broadcasts require more staff time.

A majority of the council tentatively supported allowing electronic meetings for the Board of Equalization, Ridge Street Task Force, Housing Advisory Committee, Retirement Commission, Human Rights Commission and the Community Development Block Grant/HOME Task Force.

However, the council wants more details on the burden of providing a live broadcast on the public access channel rather than airing the other meetings after the fact and whether a communications employee or board chair should host the meeting through online software. The Electoral Board also is being considered as a body that could be broadcast live.

The Board of Equalization, which hears challenges to tax assessments, already is planning an electronic meeting for June.

Although the General Assembly authorized government bodies to meet electronically during the coronavirus pandemic, the city is operating under a March ordinance allowing panels to only hold electronic meetings for business specifically related to the pandemic.

At stake is transparency and access. Although meetings would be broadcast online with an option to call in, some residents might not have internet access or know where to find the number to call.

The biggest discussion was around the Planning Commission, particularly what type of business it would be able to conduct.

The city hasn’t been accepting new land-use applications because developers cannot hold the required public meeting before submitting a proposal. Neighborhood Development Services has continued to review applications submitted prior to the March declaration of a local emergency.

Missy Creasy, deputy director for planning, said that “a couple” of public hearings have been on hold since March, one of which “has a lot of public interest.” She did not provide more information on the proposal.

Mayor Nikuyah Walker cautioned that allowing city business to continue in an altered way while the public is dealing with the pandemic’s ramifications could exclude community members from key decisions.

“This is a prime time – where people are exhausted and distracted – for inequities to grow,” she said.

Information Technology Director Sunny Hwang said the city also needs to consider meeting requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act. He said the Electoral Board has already asked for text transcripts of its meetings afterward.

Alexandria recently implemented closed captioning, which carries a significant cost.

Planning Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg told the council that it has an opportunity to greatly increase transparency for boards that typically meet at times the public can’t attend and which don’t have a lot of information readily accessible.

“We’re talking about meetings that wouldn’t have been on TV10 or Facebook Live or anywhere at all really until the minutes were approved six months later,” he said.

City Manager Tarron Richardson said officials will provide a presentation at the council’s Monday meeting about the logistics of scheduling meetings for the boards under consideration and will gather information on what items the Planning Commission could tackle and research ADA issues.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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