Governance via Zoom is coming to an end in Virginia. Should it?

By: and - June 28, 2021 12:07 am
The Virginia House of Delegates Appropriations Committee convened June 23 in what may have been its last virtual meeting.

The Virginia House of Delegates Appropriations Committee convened June 23 in what may have been its last virtual meeting.

For more than a year, policymakers across Virginia have been able to log on and conduct public business from whatever room, or car, they happen to be in.

But public bodies will have to transition back to in-person meetings after June 30, the expiration date of the state of emergency Gov. Ralph Northam declared at the onset of the COVID-19 crisis.

That declaration gave all state and local boards more leeway to meet electronically and avoid rules requiring officials to conduct most business in person and in direct view of the public. 

The return to normal operations is also sparking discussion about transparency and civic engagement, and whether some aspects of virtual meetings should be kept once the pandemic’s over.

Some have suggested updating the state’s transparency laws to give everyone more flexibility to participate in public meetings remotely. Others see a key difference between allowing citizens to be involved remotely and letting officials stay remote and shape policy through a screen or a speaker.

Whatever changes may come to incorporate pandemic-era habits into state law, Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said they should favor public participation rather than the convenience of board members.

“There has been nothing stopping public bodies from offering public participation electronically before the pandemic,” Rhyne said. “And there should be nothing preventing them from continuing to offer what they offered under the pandemic.”

While some state board members have celebrated the chance to see colleagues face-to-face again, the return to in-person meetings is also causing logistical headaches.

Virginia’s State Air Pollution Control Board, for example, is preparing for what’s expected to be high public turnout as it weighs a permit related to a planned offshoot of the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Pittsylvania County. But the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the agency that helps coordinate the air board’s work, says it doesn’t have the technological capacity to stream the meeting online or conduct a hybrid meeting to allow remote participation by the public.

During an April discussion on scheduling an in-person hearing, several air board members pushed for a meeting that would stretch into the evening or the weekend to make it easier for the public to offer comments on the proposal. 

“I really do think we need to allow the public, one way or the other, to be heard at these meetings and to have available to them a time when they can do so, whether it’s in the evening or whether it is on a weekend,” said Vice Chair Kajal Kapur at the April 23 meeting.

Despite that effort, the board opted to take up the permit on Wednesday, July 7, at 1 p.m. in Richmond.

“This was sort of the best we could do right now,” said board Chair Roy Hoagland, who added, “I pushed pretty hard for what the other options were.” (According to a Friday afternoon release, Northam’s administration is not reappointing Hoagland to the board after his term expires June 30.)

In a June 23 letter to DEQ Director David Paylor, nearly two dozen environmental and community groups led by Appalachian Voices complained that the scheduling of a one-day, in-person meeting in Richmond will limit public participation and diminish accessibility while also running counter to DEQ’s environmental justice commitments. 

“Over the past 15 months, the agencies and legislative bodies of the commonwealth have shown that they can facilitate and provide virtual or call-in options, including hybrid meetings where some participate in-person while others participate remotely,” the letter said. “The Senate of Virginia successfully demonstrated how a governmental body can navigate in-person meetings that include a virtual public component.” 

In an email, DEQ spokesman Greg Bilyeu said that while the agency has discussed hybrid options and recognizes they would make meetings more accessible, “we don’t currently have the capabilities to stream our meetings or to conduct a hybrid meeting.” 

Asked about the capabilities the agency would need, Bilyeu said DEQ would require “the necessary equipment and resources to stream the meetings and be able to ensure the same access to information that those attending in-person receive.” 

Hoagland said the board needs “something that is as flexible as the virtual meetings we had during COVID.”

“There are places where broadband is difficult, calling in is difficult, but for the most part, we certainly got greater participation remotely than we did in person,” he said.

Similarly, Board of Medicine meetings that were streamed during the pandemic will no longer be watchable online, and anyone interested in speaking during a meeting will have to show up in person.

Other boards are trying to conduct hybrid meetings. When the State Board of Elections met last week, its members were sitting together in a room in Richmond, but members of the public could log on remotely. The setup seemed to work well, but some watchers said they were having trouble hearing when board members’ spoke.

The in-person rule also presented complications for the Virginia Redistricting Commission, a new, 16-member board that has been meeting virtually for its entire existence. The commission, which by design includes representatives from all over the state, is trying to move quickly to hire legal counsel as it prepares to redraw the state’s legislative and congressional maps later this year. But some commissioners seemed daunted by the idea of trying to find a time for everyone to come to Richmond for in-person interviews with the prospective law firms. 

“’I think once the emergency order is lifted in a couple of days, it’s going to be challenging to get everybody together in one place and meet the intent of the rules in which we’re operating,” said Greta Harris, a co-chair of the commission.

Harris said it may be worth asking the General Assembly to take a look at the issue when it convenes Aug. 2 for a special session dealing with roughly $4.3 billion in federal pandemic relief.

The sun rises over the Virginia Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Members of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act Advisory Council have also begun discussing whether the pandemic-era shift to online work should prompt a rethink of the state’s meeting laws.

Lawmakers already relaxed those rules somewhat by passing a bill this year giving public officials more freedom to participate electronically due to a medical condition or caring for an ailing family member. But dozens of elected officials and unpaid volunteers appointed to local or regional advisory boards have signed a letter urging the FOIA Council to consider how more electronic meetings could be beneficial to civic participation.

At a FOIA Council subcommittee meeting last week, Fairfax County School Board member Melanie Meren said citizens have come to view virtual meetings as “a service that their government will provide.”

“We’re at a point where there’s really no going back,” she said. “We need to meet the public’s expectations.”

Some advocates for looser electronic meeting rules have argued they could open up public service to more women, people with disabilities, parents with child care responsibilities and others whose schedules may not allow strict attendance at all in-person meetings.

In an interview, Alexandria Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker, who has pushed for less restrictive rules on electronic participation, said the shift to virtual meetings led to more public participation in the work of the numerous boards she serves on.

“I think there is certainly a way to take this experience that we’ve had during COVID, take the positive lesson that we’ve learned and keep going with it,” said Bennett-Parker, who recently defeated Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, in a Democratic primary and appears to be on her way to joining the House of Delegates next year.

Bennett-Parker has circulated a draft proposal to allow electronic meetings for local advisory boards, which are typically made up of unpaid volunteers, and regional public bodies, which can involve long drives for officials from geographically distant localities. She said she’s advocating on behalf of several Northern Virginia groups, including the local chamber of commerce, that want more meeting flexibility.

“We have folks who, at least in my region, work in D.C. and can’t even get to our City Hall by a 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. meeting,” Bennett-Parker said.

Others at the FOIA meeting urged caution about changing rules for elected officials or other members of public boards, arguing there are clear benefits from having officials gather together in a room where the people they serve can see and question them.

Blackstone Mayor Billy Coleburn, who is also the publisher of his town’s newspaper, said reporters often get their best material from face-to-face conversations with officials after a meeting. Shifting more meetings online, he said, is “ripe for mischief,” potentially making it easier for officials to text among themselves and be less-than-forthcoming in their public comments.

“If you’re an elected or appointed official, there’s just certain things you’ve got to do. And you’ve got to show up,” said Coleburn, a FOIA Council member. “I hope this is our last Zoom meeting.”

FOIA Council member Cullen Seltzer said he’s increasingly convinced there are “equity and access” issues with the rules limiting electronic participation by public officials.

“I do worry that we will leave some voices out of leadership who ought to be heard in leadership because they’re constrained by that,” Seltzer said.

The state Senate continued to meet in person during the pandemic, but House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, insisted on virtual legislating for the safety of delegates and staff. Both bodies will meet in person during the special session this summer.

House Clerk Suzette Denslow said her chamber plans to continue to allow virtual public comment when bills are being heard in committee.

“We found that to be very useful to the public,” Denslow said.

The state Senate also allowed virtual public comment at legislative hearings, but Senate Clerk Susan Clarke Schaar said the upper chamber is still working on logistics of public meetings moving forward.

For now, virtual accommodations for the public will vary from board to board, with each individual body deciding how online they want to be.

Rhyne, VCOG’s director, said she’s confident public boards that want to keep allowing virtual participation by the public “can figure it out.”

“They’ve got smart people who can do this,” she said. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of not having the interest.”

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.

Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.