County supervisors held an emergency meeting Wednesday, March 25 to pass an ordinance allowing them to hold remote meetings during the national, state and local state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In normal times, The Virginia Freedom of Information Act requires a quorum of members of a public body to be physically present in the room to conduct business, and to make the meeting open and accessible to the public. Under the emergency ordinance, public bodies, including the Board of Supervisors, the Planning Commission and other board-appointed government panels, do not need a quorum of members to be physically present; however those meetings must be made open to the public to participate in-person or electronically.
County Administrator Tim Hemstreet said his staff members are working now to start a way for the public to participate in meetings electronically, which should be ready “in the next week or so.”
Those other appointed bodies are suspended whenever schools are closed; however, with schools closed for the long term, supervisors have discussed bringing some back to meet. Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) suggested bodies such as the Transit Advisory Board, Community Services Board or Housing Advisory Board come back.
“Those guidelines were written because we thought it would be a blizzard, or we thought school would be closed at the most a week or so, but they weren’t really intended when they were written to be for months and months and months,” Randall said. “Since the schools are closed for months, there are some committees that we might want to have meet.”
However County Administrator Tim Hemstreet cautioned that holding regular meetings of those committees would overtax county staff members—“we’re extremely thin right now.”
The School Board may also now vote to incorporate the emergency ordinance so that it may also meet electronically.
The ordinance also relaxes some timelines on the county government, including how quickly county staff members must respond to Freedom of Information Act requests, as the government grapples with both an emergency response and limited staffing during social distancing protocols.
Earlier this week, Attorney General Mark Herring issued guidance to public officials on holding those electronic meetings, cautioning them that not every meeting should be held electronically—instead, where possible, public bodies should delay their business until they are able to meet in person again.
Herring wrote public bodies can meet electronically if “the purpose of the meeting is to address the emergency,” which includes meeting “to make decisions that must be made immediately and where failure to do so could result in irrevocable public harm.”
Supervisors will hold a public hearing on the ordinance, which as an emergency ordinance is already in effect, on April 15. Supervisors approved the emergency ordinance unanimously.