The city of Charlottesville has spent thousands of dollars on infrastructure to support a hybrid in-person and online public meeting model, but it has yet to actually host a hybrid meeting.
Receipts obtained by The Daily Progress indicate that the city spent almost $120,000 on hybrid meeting infrastructure in 2021. The purchases were mostly paid with federal CARES Act funding, but have not been used much as the city remains in completely virtual meetings.
All city government meetings have been conducted virtually over Zoom since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. And according to city councilors and staff, it’s not clear when or if there will be hybrid meetings, a combination of virtual and in-person, in the near future.
Among projects paid for with federal funds was $39,720.74 spent on audio-visual renovations for the city community conference room. Another $31,189.43 was spent on the City Hall basement conference room, $26,855.51 on upgrades and video integration for CitySpace, $18,593.67 on upgrades to the Neighborhood Development Services conference room and $1,711.91 on a wireless professional staging kit for CitySpace.
The funds also bought 165 social distancing seat covers for $1,387.90.
The city’s Continuity of Governance ordinance that allows for virtual meetings during the pandemic expires March 18. In the past, City Council has renewed the ordinance a few times. Ultimately, the decision as to whether to go back to an in-person or hybrid meeting model is in the hands of City Council.
“As far as logistically how meetings will look, that also will be part of the council’s ultimate decisions,” said Deputy City Manager Ashley Marshall. “Our communications team is working hard to make sure that the technology is in place.”
Being able to host hybrid meetings does not mean it will happen. That, too, rests in the hands of city council.
“When the emergency order is lifted or expires, most of our commissions and boards would return to being in-person, but as to which would remain hybrid, if any, is unfortunately not a hashed out detail at this time,” Marshall said.
Councilor Michael Payne said he’d like to see a move towards hybrid meetings, especially because the city has already invested the money in making it possible.
“Our school board has been doing hybrid meetings. Other counties in the state have been doing hybrid meetings,” Payne said. “And I think it’s clear that they can be done safely with lots of safety precautions and be done successfully. We’ve invested in the infrastructure to be able to do it safely.”
Councilor Brian Pinkston agreed.
“I personally would like to start pushing towards meeting [in person]. I just think that we’re kind of getting to a point where we really need to start thinking about how [the Omicron variant] is going to be here for a while, there’s some new variant that’s out there, and we’re going to have to just learn to sort of manage through this,” Pinkston said.
City council will be participating in a hybrid joint meeting with the Charlottesville School Board on Wednesday. Councilors and board members will meet virtually while members of the public can watch the meeting at Charlottesville High School.
The school board has held several socially distanced in-person and hybrid meetings throughout the year, but Mayor Lloyd Snook said city council wasn’t ready to participate.
“There are a few of us who have some risk factors for contracting COVID that are concerning, but more importantly, we don’t want to get into a situation where people start thinking that City Hall is ready to reopen,” Snook said.
Snook said the plan is for City Council will discuss the future of city meetings before the ordinance ends. While most of the infrastructure is ready, he said officials need to establish social distancing and COVID-19 mitigation procedures before opening up.
Meanwhile, the rise of variants like omicron could result in City Council extending the ordinance, keeping meetings virtual, he said.
“We really have not set up any parameters or guidelines to say if it’s below this number [of COVID-19 cases] then we should go back,” Vice-Mayor Juandiego Wade said.
Staffing was a concern brought up by a few councilors, but David Dillehunt, Interim Deputy Director of Communications, said staff is prepared.
“On the technical side, we have already tested the waters with hybrid meetings during many of our city council meetings last year,” he said. “Our current staffing could accommodate such a hybrid scenario. We are now in the process of implementing additional COVID compliant safety measures to get the venue ready for in-person meetings.”
The state legislature is considering at least two proposed laws that would allow boards, commissions and committees to meet fully virtually a limited number of times per year, or allow local advisory bodies to always meet virtually outside of a state of emergency.
HB 444, filed by Del. Elizabeth Bennett-Parker D-Alexandria, would allow all public bodies to convene all-virtual public meetings two times per calendar year, or for 25% of the meetings held per calendar year, whichever is greater.
Another bill, HB 722, filed by Del. Wendy Gooditis, D-Boyce, would allow meetings of local public bodies that serve solely in an advisory capacity to hold electronic meetings.
Some members of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors have voiced their support to stay fully virtual even after the pandemic. Payne said he doesn’t think this is the right move for the city.
“Having some level of in person [attendance] is important to build a rapport among both council and staff, as well as with the community during meetings,” Payne said. He noted that some members of boards and commissions have yet to meet each other after almost two years of Zoom meetings.
Most councilors supported continuing a hybrid model where the public can tune in online while City Council meets in person.
“There are some folks for whom virtual works better for and they’re attending more. There are other folks who haven’t attended even one meeting since we’ve gone virtual, but used to be regular attendees,” Payne said. “I think it would be ideal, keeping it hybrid, to maximize public participation.”
Snook it’s a difficult balance between prioritizing safety and prioritizing the benefits of meeting in person.
“All I can say is that there’s no agenda, particularly for trying to stay virtual longer. In many ways, it’s kind of a pain,” Snook said. “But we’re also conscious of the fact that we’ve got a lot of city employees who still haven’t come back to City Hall, who are still working remotely.”