Hello everyone. I hope you are doing well and are prepared for a long period of time when things are different. Most if not all government meetings have been canceled for the time being, though the Greene County Board of Supervisors meeting is still scheduled for tonight. And while Albemarle and Charlottesville do not have any scheduled meetings this week, I’m told that the Charlottesville-Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau did meet today via conference call.
How will public meetings proceed in the near future? How will the business of local government be or get done? These are big questions and we do not have all the answers yet. Every day brings changes and new challenges for us and local governments alike and I’m using my time to try to learn more.
On Friday, Attorney General Mark Herring issued an opinion on whether public bodies can meet remotely. I’m still digging through that to understand what it means. (AG’s opinion)
“We understand that while everyone is focused on this epidemic, the business of government must be able to continue,” said Governor Ralph Northam at a briefing on Saturday. “Attorney General Mark Herring has issued an opinion that says public bodies in Virginia may conduct business of meetings electronically if the purpose of the meeting is to address the emergency. That includes meeting to make decisions that must be made immediately and where failure to do so could result in irrevocable public harm.”
All of us at PEC are keeping our eyes on local officials as this COVID-19 emergency continues. If we can keep calm and remain observant, we will find our way through this time. All of us are finding new ways to use digital communications tools to remain connected to each other while we have to keep our distance.
On that note, in my spare time, I’ve begun a podcast on the local and state response to the pandemic. You might be of interest. If so, click here.
Please drop me a line to let me know you’re okay. I want to stay in contact with you. I also encourage you to watch Governor Northam’s press conference on Facebook Live. These generally begin around 2 p.m.
Tuesday, March 24, 2020
Greene County declared a local state of emergency on March 13, and the Board of Supervisors will meet in their regular location to affirm the decision by the county’s director of emergency services. Greene has moved their budget public hearing to April 28. I spoke with the clerk today and this meeting is still scheduled and will be streamed live. (agenda)
Wednesday, March 25, 2020
Charlottesville City Council announced late Tuesday that they will hold a special meeting at 11:00 a.m. to vote on a “continuity of government” ordinance. In-person public participation is limited to ten people pursuant to Governor Northam’s Executive Order 53, but people can participate via Zoom. (state code reference)
The regional body that sets local policy for transportation policy will meet at 4 p.m. and at least three of the four board members will need to be present to have a quorum. This meeting of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization will allow the public to view via Zoom or listen via telephone. The connection information is not yet available. On the agenda is a discussion of possible submissions for this year’s round of the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Smart Scale funding program.
Albemarle has canceled all of their meetings, and that includes the Albemarle Broadband Authority. The website for that organization has been updated to include information on how people without broadband can still connect to public wi-fi in these times. (website)
Thursday, March 26, 2020
The Town of Scottsville will hold an emergency meeting at 4 p.m. This will be televised and public comment will be taken via Zoom and written input. I will be watching to see how this goes, and I suspect other local jurisdictions will be as well. Details in this press release.
Charlottesville City Council met at 11:00 a.m. Since Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring issued an opinion on Friday March 20 about the ability of local governments to meet electronically during the emergency, local governments have slowly been figuring out next steps. The only business at this meeting was on March 25 was to adopt a “continuity of government ordinance” that will allow them to meet remotely via electronic means.
“It seems to be a consensus of Council that Councilors would prefer whatever legal means are necessary to allow you to all participate electronically until this COVID-19 issue, until there’s some mitigation of that in the community that would make it safe for people to gather,” said City Attorney John Blair.
Before the COVID-19 emergency, the idea of public bodies meeting remotely raised many questions about public access and transparency. And those questions are still ones worth raising as this crisis forces public business into the digital platforms that are becoming so much part of our life as 2020 continues. But, what does that mean for the Freedom of Information Act and open meetings rules?
“The Freedom of Information Act requires the Council to have what’s called an open meeting and it also requires a physical quorum of the Council,” Blair said. ”Traditionally per FOIA obviously three people of the five members of the Council need to be here for a physical quorum and also the doors have to be open to participate and see the workings of government.”
Charlottesville’s communications department will debut a new information program at 4:00 p.m. with Mayor Nikuyah Walker and City Manager Tarron Richardson. You can watch it on their online streaming portal.
Friday, March 27, 2020
The Albemarle Board of Supervisors will meet at 8:30 a.m. in Lane Auditorium. They’ll also take consider a continuity of government declaration, as well as removing the “public comment” period from the agenda during the duration of the COVID-19 crisis. (agenda)
As always, thank you, and please reach out to me if you have any questions!
Field Representative – Albemarle, Charlottesville and Greene
The Piedmont Environmental Council