Arlington County is taking steps toward making virtual meeting participation a post-pandemic option for residents, staff and local officials.
“We are all trying to figure out what worked really well about virtual engagement and adapting it,” County Board Vice Chair Katie Cristol tells ARLnow.
The board expects to transition back to in-person meetings in June or July, Cristol said. But hybrid formats, such as in-person board and commission meetings with virtual public comments, could be here to stay.
County staff are working on securing funding to expand virtual and hybrid meeting options as part of the three-year Capital Improvement Plan, which the County Board is slated to adopt in July. The plan includes $1 million for adding or enhancing audio and visual capabilities in conference rooms.
The upgrades would help broaden public participation, “making in-person meetings accessible virtually by others unable to participate” in-person, according to a staff presentation.
Last year, Gov. Ralph Northam issued an emergency order and legislators changed state law to allow for online government meetings during the pandemic. Legislation approved in March will allow local officials to be exempt from in-person meeting standards during emergencies declared by local governing bodies, in addition to ones declared by the governor.
State open-meeting laws also allow officials on an individual, limited basis to attend a meeting virtually in certain circumstances, such as a temporary disability or personal matter.
The new legislation is not as robust as some officials advocated for last year, however. County Board member Libby Garvey and other women in politics testified before the Virginia Freedom of Information Association Council — a state agency that helps resolve disputes over Freedom of Information issues — and signed a joint letter supporting more flexible rules governing virtual attendance for public officials.
Now, Arlington County officials are looking to keep some virtual meeting adaptations in place, noting that other governmental bodies benefited from gathering virtually.
Cristol said many people, including appointed commission members who aren’t compensated for their time, can face difficulties with participating in meetings when juggling children’s needs, work and other issues.
She said in an email that the capital improvement proposal would be a foundational step toward “being able to livestream every commission and committee meeting.”
Pre-pandemic, Arlington County live-streamed only key meetings, including those of the County Board, Planning Commission and Transportation Commission.