Year In Review: Virtual Meetings Gave Loudouners More Access

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, elected leaders and government staff scrambled to figure out how to keep doing business when they could not safely gather in the same room. And ultimately, the virus response gave governments in Loudoun the nudge they needed to open up access to public meetings virtually.

And at that time, there were many unknowns—both about the virus, and how to work in the pandemic. The Board of Supervisors adopted an emergency ordinance to allow it to meet remotelyon March 25.The Attorney General’s guidance on what could be discussed in those meetingswas stretched to the point that supervisors were conducting non-essential—even ceremonial—business outside the normal rules of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. The General Assembly would laterlegalize what the board was already doing, allowing them to meet electronically in a state of emergency “to discuss or transact the business statutorily required or necessary to continue operations of the public body.” Supervisors would also begin a practice that has been more common this year,taking votes by email—outside of even electronic meetings—and only later ratifying those decisions formally in a public meeting.

But where before the public could only watch the meeting remotely, they also began allowing the residents to participate in those meetings remotely, offering to take comments online and over the phone. And that, supervisors decided, is here to stay.

Now, Loudouners can participate in the board’s business meetings and public hearings atloudoun.gov/remoteparticipation, and that function is expected to be a permanent part of board meetings.

The difference is even more dramatic in some western Loudoun towns.

The COVID-19 pandemic helped many western Loudouners gain greater access to the legislative operations of their town governments than ever before, as some towns continued to livestream their Town Council meetings, while others jumped on the band wagon for the first time and still others continue to hold those meetings in virtual format.

The Hamilton Town Council in September began livestreaming its meetings on Zoom and recording and posting them on the town website using the Swagit platform. Swagit allows viewers who are watching recorded meetings access to the exact part of the meeting they’re searching for by clicking on the link in the agenda.

The Hillsboro Town Council switched to virtual meetings via Zoom. Mayor Roger Vance said the council would continue to meet virtually at least through March.

“We’re seeing better participation … by doing it all virtual,” said Vice Mayor Amy Marasco.

Although residents can access those live Hillsboro council meetings through a link on the town website, the meeting recordings aren’t posted to the website afterward.

The Lovettsville Town Council didn’t change the way it broadcasts meetings too much. The town has used AV Capture to record its council meetings since June 2017. Like Swagit, AV Capture posts the recordings to the town website and includes a feature in which viewers can select the exact spot in the meeting they wish to watch.

But the Lovettsville Town Council did change the way it convenes in meetings. Since the town office is too small to socially distance six council members along with a mayor, town manager and other town staffers, they have all been meeting virtually on Zoom for months. Residents have been accessing those live meetings by signing in directly to the Zoom calls.

Lovettsville’s new office and is expected to open in early 2021, which will allow for the Town Council to again hold in-person meetings in the existing town office, which has been converted into a large council chamber.

Mayor Nate Fontaine said that while the transition to virtual meetings “went exceedingly smooth” and the Zoom platform has worked out well, the government needs to meet in-person because not everyone has the technology to watch meetings online.

“We need to get back in the town hall chambers,” he said.

The Middleburg Town Council has not changed the way it broadcasts meetings. Since early 2018, the town has used Swagit, allowing residents to watch live and recorded meetings on the town website.

The Purcellville Town Council also has not changed the way it offers recorded meetings to residents, having used Swagit since late 2019. Those wishing to watch and participate in live meetings, however, have been doing so not by accessing the livestream on the town website, but by signing into the GoToMeeting events.

Under an order from Town Manager David Mekarski, the Town Council will remain convening in virtual meetings throughat least the end of January.

Like Lovettsville, the Town of Round Hill’s smaller office size forced Town Council meetings online via Zoom calls. Those recorded meetings, however, still aren’t posted on the town website.

In October, the Round Hill Town Council resolved to continue holding meetings on Zoom through at least March 2021, at which point it will discuss the matter again.

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