Western Loudoun’s largest town could soon catch up with the technology and policy advances its smaller neighbors have already made.
The Purcellville Town Council last week discussed the possibility of allowing its members to participate remotely in meetings. The idea, which a majority of council members agreed would be good practice, follows a recent upgrade to the council chambers’ audio equipment—something the Town Council directed staff to do in the previous fiscal year. It also comes during an age in which every other Loudoun town council is already equipped with the technology and policy.
Town Attorney Sally Hankins presented council members with a draft remote participation policy to consider, the language of which reflects state law.
The policy would allow for council members to participate remotely in a Town Council meeting “due to a temporary or permanent disability or other medical condition” or “due to a personal matter.” Council members would need to specify which kind of personal matter—family needs or work or vacation travel—might prohibit them from physically participating in the meeting.
Council members would be limited to remotely participating in meetings twice in a calendar year. All Town Council votes would also need to be taken as roll call votes if a council member is participating remotely. Council members not physically present at a meeting would not be counted toward the quorum—the minimum number of council members needed to be physically present for the meeting to take place.
The main point of discussion during the May 14 session centered on the question of whether remote participants should be allowed to call into closed sessions.
Vice Mayor Ryan Cool said he was opposed to remote participation in closed sessions, noting that an option in Hankins’ draft policy that would allow for remote participation in closed sessions “only when the member is in a location that does not allow for the member to be overheard” isn’t secure enough.
“How do we know who’s being overheard or who’s sitting around watching and listening,” he asked. “There are things discussed in closed meetings that should not be leaked out and it is a trust factor and things get leaked out in this place and I do not want it open.”
Although Mayor Kwasi Fraser agreed, the two were outnumbered, with Councilmen Chris Bledsoe, Joel Grewe and Tip Stinnette voting in favor of allowing remote participation in closed sessions. Councilman Ted Greenly was absent from the meeting.
Stinnette argued that the council members should be allowed to use their judgment when determining if they’re in a secure-enough location to call into a closed session.
“If everybody understands the nature of the closed meeting and can secure themselves so that they can participate in it, I don’t understand [why remote participation in closed sessions should be prohibited],” he said. “We’re all grown-ups here.”
Hankins said she would use the council members’ input to bring an updated draft policy back for a vote at the May 28 meeting.
The vote will come after years of debate on the matter. The previous Town Council opted to not take a vote on it at a September 2014 meeting, with then-Councilwoman Karen Jimmerson expressing concerns about security and technical issues with remote participation in both open and closed sessions. Councilwoman Joan Lehr also voiced opposition to allowing it.
In July 2016, the council tabled another vote on the topic.
In fiscal year 2018, the council voted to direct the staff to move forward with audio upgrades in the council chambers and the Heritage Room, where the closed meetings are held. While those were completed in that fiscal year, the town didn’t receive the invoice until fiscal year 2019, at which point the council voted to direct staff to use $14,000 from the General Fund reserve account to pay for the work.
Town Clerk Diana Hays said the upgrade included a dial-in feature at no extra cost that allows council members to participate in meetings remotely if a policy to do so is approved.
If the Purcellville Town Council votes to adopt a remote meeting participation policy, it would bring it up to speed with Loudoun’s six other towns, all of which allow for their council members to participate in meetings remotely.
Middleburg is the only town that explicitly restricts council members from participating remotely in closed sessions.