Albemarle County is one of few places in Virginia that continues to hold almost all public meetings virtually since the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020 and several of its elected officials want it to stay that way.
State law allows localities that declared a local state of emergency to continue to hold virtual meetings when it’s unsafe to meet in person and when the meeting is needed to keep government working.
Without an emergency declaration, all public meetings have to have an in-person quorum, although boards may allow the public to watch or comment electronically.
Albemarle declared a local emergency due to COVID-19 in March 2020. The Board of Supervisors will ultimately have to declare the emergency over.
“At this time, staff is not recommending that we shift into an in-person public meeting posture just yet,” said Assistant County Executive Trevor Henry at a meeting last week. That is due in part, he said, to a spike in COVID cases and hospitalizations.
At some point, the county will likely return to in person board meetings, but not soon.
County Attorney Greg Kamptner said it once the local emergency declaration ends, per state law, there is a 12-month period under the county’s Continuity of Government ordinance where it could continue to hold virtual-only meetings.
“Once the disaster ends and the board is ready to begin resuming normal operations, it does have 12 months, and within that 12 month period, the county’s public bodies will need to return to physically assembling in order to conduct their meeting,” he said.
Chair Donna Price said there are still internet connectivity issues in many parts of Albemarle.
“I am supportive of virtual opportunities for the other boards, committees, commissions, whatever it may be, but the problem becomes, if they’re all virtual, then there’s a segment of our population which is excluded from participation,” she said.
Albemarle staff members have been working on ways for some public meetings to return to meeting in-person for appointed and elected officials. Staff has proposed three different meeting style tiers — hybrid, virtual access and in-person — for future meetings once COVID retreats, but at least half of the supervisors expressed a desire to have many boards and commission meetings remain fully virtual.
“I have better participation right now on my [Community Advisory Committee] than I’ve ever had, and my CAC board members are really liking the Zoom,” Supervisor Diantha McKeel said.
McKeel said community members and CAC members like the virtual CAC meetings because it makes them easier to attend.
“It really is more about being able to go to the meeting and not have to drive home late at night, childcare issues, those sorts of issues, rather than the concern, hopefully at some point, about COVID,” she said.
Many supervisors want the community advisory committee meetings to remain virtual. The committees, known as CACs for short, meet monthly and are charged with supporting Albemarle staff and supervisors in implementing their development area’s Master Plan.
Typically, development proposals have their required meetings with the surrounding community during CAC meetings. There are currently seven CACs in the county.
“There has been far better results and participation than we have ever had since 1984 when I started coming to meetings here again,” Supervisor Ann H. Mallek said. “So that is the exciting thing and I will try hard to keep that from being lost.”
Under county staff’s initial proposal, county legislative bodies — the Board of Supervisors, School Board and Planning Commission — would go to a hybrid meeting format in the future, where people physically in the meeting room, such as the elected and appointed officials required to be there, can see and hear those participating via videoconference and people on the videoconferencing platform can see and hear what is happening in the meeting room in real-time.
Authorities and decision-making bodies — like the county’s authorities for broadband and economic development as well as the Board of Zoning Appeals, Board of Equalization and Architectural Review Board — would have members return in person, but there would still be virtual presentations to the public body, virtual public comment and public viewing in real-time.
Under the proposal, all other committees and boards would return to fully in-person meetings.
County spokesperson Emily Kilroy said technology will soon be fully in place in Lane Auditorium and Room 241 at the McIntire Road County Office Building to hold hybrid meetings.
“Setting up a virtual access or hybrid in the field is really difficult, because every meeting is different, internet connectivity varies, and the built in [audio-visual infrastructure] varies from place to place,” Kilroy said. “We feel like those advisory bodies can really conduct their work in a really meaningful way in person, and that that’s the appropriate level to support those at.”
Supervisor Ned Gallaway said virtual meetings allow people to be efficient with their time and open up participation, and that FOIA law is “starting to become antiquated and it has to be updated for what the modern world has to say.”
“When I look at the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, it says, ‘The affairs of government are not intended to be conducted in an atmosphere of secrecy, since at all times the public is the beneficiary of any action taken at any level of government,’’’ he said. “Well, how in the hell has virtual somehow made it more secret? It hasn’t, but that’s where the onus lies.”
There are at least two bills in the General Assembly that would allow boards, commissions and committees to meet fully virtually a limited number of times per year, or would allow local advisory bodies to always meet virtually.
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.
The bill was crafted after meetings between the state Coalition for Open Government, Press Association, Association of Counties, Municipal League and the city of Alexandria.
“We tried to work out some sort of an update to the electronic meetings section that would give more flexibility in non-emergency times, and that would apply to all public bodies, as opposed to the current system which is dependent on whether you’re a state body, a regional body or a local body. Each one has different rules,” said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.
Rhyne said part of the problem with an all Zoom meeting is there are some functions that do allow other types of communication among public bodies, but not necessarily everyone has access to that function.
“If you’re in a public meeting in person, you can see when two people get up and go and talk off to the side, or you can tell when people are looking down at their phones and perhaps exchanging messages,” she said. “There’s a way to be much more vigilant.”
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.
Rhyne said that group of organizations realized how difficult it is to identify what is considered an advisory body.
The General Assembly session started Jan. 12, and HB 444 has been referred to the Committee on General Laws. HB 722 has not yet been assigned to a house committee.