Arlington County Board members are seeking General Assembly permission to continue with online-only meetings long after the COVID crisis has receded.
In perpetuity, conceivably.
Added into the County Board’s 2021 General Assembly policy positions after a first draft was released is a new item asking the legislature to “permit localities and public bodies to set their own rules regarding ‘virtual’ participation.”
Board members are slated to approve the legislative wish list at their Dec. 12 meeting. The package will be forwarded to the seven members of the county’s General Assembly delegation.
Currently, Virginia government entities are allowed to ignore traditional (and sometimes statutorily required) meeting procedures so long as the state of emergency declared by Gov. Northam in March remains in place. But after it expires, bodies will be required to go back to normal meeting procedures unless the legislature amends state law.
While some other neighboring jurisdictions have resumed in-person governing-body meetings (with a variety of restrictions in place), Arlington has not given any indication when it may return to them. It is part of a general skittishness among Arlington leaders to take even modest steps in the direction of normalcy.
In the wake of the COVID crisis of springtime, County Board meetings continued to take place, albeit in electronic format. Board members appeared in separate boxes in a format that would be familiar to “Brady Bunch” viewers.
While board meetings continued, for several months there were few if any meetings of the government’s dozens of advisory bodies. An effort to roll out a procedure to restart those meetings was met by brickbats from many advisory-commission chairs, and had to be revamped on the fly over the summer.
County Board Chairman Libby Garvey has waxed rhapsodic several times in recent months about the benefits of online gatherings, suggesting they allow for broader public participation compared to requiring the public to gather together.
(Sometimes, however, the facts on the ground are different. The online “annual luncheon” of the Inter-Service Club Council of Arlington, held recently and featuring Garvey discussing issues including the benefits of online meetings, attracted only about half the number of participants who usually attend the real luncheon, held during non-COVID years at Washington Golf & Country Club.)
There could be middle-ground approaches, incorporating 21st-century measures without eliminating traditional meetings. Even before the COVID scare, the city council of Beverly Hills (Calif.) was among those that allowed the public to call in with comments during an “open-mike period” (similar to the Arlington board’s public-comment period that starts meetings) as well as phone in with testimony on specific agenda items. These days, Zoom and other online platforms have supplanted Ma Bell for facilitating that not-in-person participation.
The General Assembly is set to open its 2021 session in early January for what ordinarily would be a 46-day session. But Republican leaders have vowed to use procedural means to limit the session to 30 days, saying the lengthy special session earlier this year provided ample opportunity for pressing legislation to be addressed, negating the need for a longer winter session.
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