The Arlington County government’s ability to jumpstart its board and commission process in a social-distancing environment remains, in part, at the mercy of technological and scheduling challenges.
And just saying “Let’s have a Zoom meeting” is not going to cut it.
“Why can’t the county just ‘get with the times’? It’s not that simple,” said Jessica Margarit of the county government’s Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development, who has led a team working out the details of resuming regular advisory-body meetings – albeit online – during the public-health crisis.
“This is all going to require some careful orchestration,” Margarit told County Board members on May 19. “We’re going to have drastically fewer meetings per week.”
Why? Because meetings will have to be broadcast on the county government’s access channels (and on YouTube), which coupled with the need for support staff to handle the technical intricacies effectively will limit commission meetings to one at a time. In a normal era, there sometimes are multiple meetings going on in county conference rooms simultaneously.
When it comes to scheduling, first priority will go to those bodies that have statutorily required deadlines to hold their meetings and render decisions, including the Board of Zoning Appeals, Board of Equalization, Electoral Board and Planning Commission.
Next on the priority list will be those whose input on specific matters is needed in advance of a County Board meeting, or those dealing with issues related to the pandemic or its economic-development impacts.
Commissions and committees that don’t rise to the top may have to wait. Perhaps indefinitely.
“All matters that can be postponed . . . should be postponed,” Margarit said.
Until a few weeks ago, online meetings of advisory bodies, and even the County Board itself, would have skirted state law. The General Assembly approved emergency, short-term changes to public-meeting laws to permit online gatherings, but required that the meetings provide access to the public and meet other requirements of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.
The result has been complicated, but “it’s not beyond our capacity to deliver,” County Board member Christian Dorsey said.
The Arlington government has dozens of advisory panels on subject areas ranging from aging and the arts to historic preservation and sports. The work of the panels is vital, County Board member Katie Cristol said.
“We can’t put all of the work of the community on hold,” she said.
In some ways, going “virtual” will provide the public greater access to board and commission meetings, as it will allow for recordings of the meetings to be posted on the government’s Website for later viewing. Only a few advisory panels, such as the Planning Commission, previously had such capability.
How long the online-meeting environment will last remains an open question. Some of the authority to hold meetings in cyberspace expire when the state declaration of emergency lapses, but some will continue on for up to six months after the formal end of the emergency.