COVID Containment Leads to Virtual Public Engagement?

By. Neil Williamson, President

The global COVID-19 pandemic has put local development projects awaiting legislative action on hold for the foreseeable future – but it doesn’t have to.

Yesterday, imageCharlottesville City Council held an emergency meeting (which was live streamed on Facebook) and enacted emergency meeting ordinance that allows them to conduct continuity of government meetings remotely (video/teleconferencing/webinar).

Per Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring’s legal opinion (see below), Charlottesville “Ordinary Business”  will not be conducted via videoconferencing.  While the ordinance allows for regular physical public meetings to occur, to accomplish these tasks but the discussion at the meeting indicated such meetings were not likely to occur.

Charlottesville City Councilor Michael Payne responded to my Twitter post:

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Albemarle County has called a special meeting at 8:30 am tomorrow (3/27).  Their agenda indicates the deferral of several pending development projects:

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It is not yet clear how long these Albemarle projects may be deferred.  It is possible, that these items could be heard in the near future via video/teleconference/webinar.

This has been a source of disagreement among land use attorneys across the Commonwealth.  Some are convinced that localities won’t use electronic meetings to conduct land use applications – and some are convinced they can and they will.

The Free Enterprise Forum firmly believes some forward thinking localities will implement remote public hearings and when they succeed, others will follow.  The question is when.

Last Friday (3/20) Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring released an opinion regarding public meetings during the COVID-19 outbreak.  Footnote #37 is the closest we have defining “Continuity of Government”

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In his conclusion, Herring provides direction to localities but also allows for further interpretation of “Continuity of Government”.

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The Free Enterprise Forum fully understands and appreciates the need to pause legislative approvals.  Further we are sincerely appreciative of local governments efforts to provide live coverage of their public meetings during the COVID-19 crisis.

We are concerned how long we operate under this frozen state of approvals. – At some point – the continuity of government operations, not just the continuity of government, must move forward.

The Free Enterprise Forum believes the COVID-19 outbreak may push localities into a space that actually increases public engagement by moving local government public hearings into a virtual environment. 

If such a move increases efficiency and increases engagement, this would be a win-win out of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Stay Tuned.

Neil Williamson, President

Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded non partisan public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and  Nelson County.  For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org

 

 

   

 

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