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In-person public meetings remain elusive in the area

Just as they have for the last year, appointed and elected officials in Charlottesville and Albemarle County still will be able to attend meetings from their homes, their cars, while at work or while on vacation — for at least the next two months.

Even with the state of emergency lifted for Virginia, the city and county will stay under local emergencies and continue to hold virtual meetings for most of their public bodies for the coming months.

Due to a new law that went into effect Thursday, jurisdictions that have declared a local state of emergency can still hold virtual meetings when it’s unsafe to meet in person and the purpose of the meeting is to provide for the continuity of operations of the public body.

Despite being in one of the highest vaccinated areas in the state, local officials point to the COVID-19 delta variant, allowing more time for additional residents to get vaccinated and community hesitancy as reasons they likely will not end fully virtual meetings until the late summer or early fall.

“As we think about inviting people back into City Hall, these tend to be long meetings in small spaces, and I think the city manager’s preference is to be cautious, hence the target after Labor Day, so that we can allow more time for everyone to get vaccinated,” Charlottesville spokesperson Brian Wheeler said.

The city’s recommendation is to return to in-person meetings on Sept. 7 with that night’s City Council meeting, but the council will get the final say on the exact date at one of its August meetings.

Albemarle is currently planning for an early fall return to in-person meetings.

“It’s a balancing act — we have to balance the legal framework articulated under [the Virginia Freedom of Information Act] with what technology will allow, and what the people who are involved prefer, and so that’s where the work is right now,” Albemarle spokesperson Emily Kilroy said.

As of Friday, nearly 60% of COVID vaccine-eligible residents in Albemarle are fully inoculated — the highest such rate in the state — and nearly 70% have had at least one vaccine dose. Approximately 52% of Charlottesville’s vaccine-eligible residents are fully inoculated against COVID-19.

In the spring, Albemarle surveyed local media, county staff and county board, commission and committee members about virtual meetings and returning to in-person meetings. In the members survey, some said they wanted to return to in-person as soon as possible.

“There is so much lost in the virtual forum; our committee’s morale and work suffers,” said one member. “We can improve if allowed to resume in-person meetings.”

When asked how the work of their public body would be challenged by returning to in-person meetings, some pointed to the convenience of virtual meetings, and said travel time and coordination of meeting times would be more difficult.

“It would be harder for the entire committee to meet and it would increase the carbon footprint of those who do,” said another member. “If someone has to drive 30 [minutes] each way to get to a meeting instead of staying at home and doing it on Zoom, the accumulated consequences will be substantial.”

Once meetings return to in-person, both Charlottesville and Albemarle are planning to allow the public to livestream and comment virtually during some major public meetings, such as the City Council, the Board of Supervisors and both planning commissions.

“We’re going to recommend to [the council] that up to eight boards have a virtual meeting or hybrid meeting option,” Wheeler said. “While the decision-makers will have to meet in person, we do want to invite the public and staff to participate in those high-profile boards and commissions remotely if they wish. The exact makeup of which boards will be up to council.”

Starting July 12, the county office buildings will be open to the public by appointment and for drop-off services, Kilroy said, which starts the transition to more in-person services from the county.

A change in state law also allows governments to keep their continuity of governance ordinances for one year, where it had been six months before. The county’s ordinance says six months but the board could now extend that to 12.

“It’s not when the local emergency ends everything’s going to go back to where it was, and it’s not to say that everything will automatically hold for 12 months. Some things might be very easy and reasonable for us to resume normal operations more quickly than other things,” Kilroy said. “That’s why we’ll be taking our time to step things back rather than more of an on-off switch.”

Albemarle is also working to outfit Lane Auditorium with equipment so the public can still provide comments from their computer or over the phone and be heard in the room, but officials don’t yet know how possible hybrid meetings will be for smaller rooms or in buildings that aren’t the county office buildings.

With the local emergencies and continuity of governance ordinances in place in Charlottesville and Albemarle, regional bodies also can continue to meet virtually, and many plan to do so.

The Rivanna Solid Waste and Water & Sewer Authority boards have not yet discussed a plan to return to in-person public meetings, but Executive Director Bill Mawyer said they likely will follow the lead of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors and Charlottesville City Council.

The executive director of the Albemarle County Service Authority, Gary O’Connell, said the service authority board will follow Albemarle’s lead.

“We’re buying equipment to be able to hold hybrid meetings in the future — [with an] in-person board and an option for virtual for the public for convenience,” he said.

One elected body — the Charlottesville School Board — has returned to meeting in person and plans to do so for the foreseeable future.

“As we started to make decisions, asking the teachers to go back into the buildings, and there were a lot of important things going on, I started to poll the rest of the board and check in with everybody as far as their comfort level and what type of setup, and then working with the staff to look at spacing options,” School Board Chair Lisa Larson-Torres said.

State law prior to July 1 allowed a member to attend two meetings through electronic communication per year if they had a temporary or permanent disability or other medical condition that prevented the member’s physical attendance and if the public body has adopted a written policy.

That law also has expanded, now allowing members who are caring for a family member with a medical condition that prevents them from attending in person to attend electronically, and allows members to attend electronically 25% of the meetings held per calendar year, or two meetings, whichever is greater.

Outside of a local emergency, public bodies have to have a quorum in person.

The Virginia Freedom of Information Act Advisory Council has been discussing whether current meeting laws should be expanded to allow for more options for elected and appointed officials to meet virtually.

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said some feedback the state FOIA council has received is conflating public participation electronically versus member participation electronically.

“Public participation electronically has never been prohibited — they have had the authority, the power, the encouragement to do it for years and years,” she said. “The pandemic showed us that they can offer these avenues for the public to observe and participate electronically, and we encourage them to keep doing that once we move back to in-person.”

Where VCOG has a sticking point, however, is with the idea that public body members should be able attend meeting electronically more often.

“We have always believed that in-person public meetings are better because you not only have the interaction of the members, which is important, but the public gets to see that interaction,” Rhyne said. “And public meetings also serve as a meeting place for the citizens themselves. There’s just so much more going on in a public meeting than just the members serving as talking heads on a Zoom screen.”

Some on the FOIA Advisory Council are also skeptical of more electronic meetings.

“There are a lot of people in elected office who are chickens — they only want to sit in the seat and have the name plate in front, but when it gets hot, they want to wither away,” said FOIA council member Billy Coleburn, who is mayor of Blackstone and the editor of the area’s newspaper.

“We are at a watershed moment, we really are, but the watershed moment is we keep chipping away at the citizens’ convenience and we’re making things all about catering to the members,” he said. “I’m a mayor. I’m an hour and 20 minutes’ drive from Richmond. I don’t like big cities. I can’t stand parking around the Capitol. But I want us to meet in person, because it’s the right thing to do.”

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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