Local government bodies are grappling with decisions about if and how to conduct public meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic after Gov. Ralph Northam’s ban of gatherings of 10 and the recommendation of individuals being 6 feet apart.
This also comes after Attorney General Mark Herring issued an advisory opinion that states Virginia law allows public bodies to conduct meetings electronically if “the purpose of the meeting is to address the emergency.”
It also states that “the General Assembly did not intend to permit bodies to handle all business through electronic communication means, even during a declared emergency.”
Halifax town manager Carl Espy said the town is working with legal counsel based on Herring’s advice to decide how to move forward.
“We’re still trying to make a determination of what we can do to continue public engagement while also following health safety protocols — not having more than 10 people assembled and being six feet apart,” said Espy.
The town of Halifax is in the process of making a decision about its April 14 town council meeting. Council would typically meet at 6:30 p.m. that day at Halifax Town Hall for a work session, with the regular business meeting to follow.
Espy said the town is exploring the idea of holding the meeting with a limited number of staff members and elected officials meeting in person with others dialing in remotely and offering a “virtual meeting platform” to allow others to participate in the meeting.
Herring’s advisory opinion states that Virginia Code “permits public bodies that are unable to assemble in person because of the unique characteristics of the COVID-19 virus to meet electronically to make decisions that must be made immediately and where failure to do so could result in irrevocable harm. Whether any particular action by a public body fits within that description requires a fact-specific determination that should be made in consultation with that public body’s counsel.”
Virginia Code states that government bodies must still comply with the Virginia Freedom of Information Act when meeting via electronic communication.
The public body must “still have a quorum to conduct business,” but not necessarily physically present, and must “make arrangements for the public to access such meeting…As always, the public must receive notice at least three days before the meeting,” the code states.
In addition, minutes of meetings during states of emergency must record “the nature of the emergency, the fact that the meeting was held by electronic communication means and the type of electronic communication means by which the meeting was held.”
The town of South Boston has canceled its March 30 town council work session but is exploring ways to hold council’s regular April business meeting.
The meeting is normally held on the second Monday of each month at 7 p.m. in Council Chambers on Yancey Street.
The town also will make a decision soon about holding public hearings necessary to move forward with projects.
“We need to have a couple of public hearings, especially with the Poplar Creek Homes project and get that moving forward,” said South Boston town manager Tom Raab.
The proposed project consists of the construction of 16 buildings comprised of 32 apartment units and site work on 3.5 acres of undeveloped land on Poplar Creek Street.
Halifax County has not yet made a decision regarding the board of supervisors’ April business meeting either.
The meeting is normally held the first Monday of each month at 6:30 p.m. in the Mary Bethune Office Complex. The county’s decision regarding that meeting will be announced at a later date.
The Halifax County Industrial Development Authority is holding its regular monthly meeting Friday morning, with a closed session at 8:30 a.m. followed by a business meeting open to the public.
The meeting has been moved from the IDA boardroom to a larger conference room to allow more space for board members and attendees.
“We are practicing safe distances,” said Halifax County IDA executive director Brian Brown.
Also at a recent Halifax County School Board meeting, the location was moved to the Halifax County Middle School cafeteria so individuals could space out, and some board members chose to phone into the meeting. The meeting also was streamed on Facebook live.