How will governments hold voting meetings during the coronavirus pandemic? They’re trying to figure that out

Portsmouth

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — While essential city services, such as trash pickup and utility services, continue amid the COVID-19 outbreak, one governmental function is more difficult to carry out: council meetings.

On Tuesday, Gov. Ralph Northam, (D-Virginia), announced the state would abide by federal guidelines, encouraging all gatherings to be 10 people or less as the pandemic continues.

Councils across Hampton Roads would violate that advisement when it comes the attendance of members and essential city staff alone — for instance the seven-member Portsmouth City Council also has its city manager, attorney and clerk, and sergeant-at-arms at all their meetings.

While some may point to modern technology as an easy fix, Virginia Beach Vice Mayor Jim Wood told his colleagues it’s not.

“We do not legally have the ability to have telemeetings,” Wood said.

Under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Law, councils can only act from separate physical locations if they discuss and act on something having to do with the emergency.

Not knowing how long the “social distancing,” will last, Wood says they are seeking a change.

“What we are trying to do is have the governor come up with some sort of executive order, such that we can conduct meetings virtually in some way that will limit exposure not only to the public, but to the members of the body so we can continue to conduct the business,” Wood said.

Mayor Bobby Dyer echoed the concerns, saying the longer they put off regular items, such as allocating funds and approving planning items, the more of a backlog they will have. Virginia Beach government is still playing catch up in the wake of the May 31st mass shooting.

The concerns were also shared by Chesapeake City Council Tuesday afternoon.

“We are not six feet apart,” said Mayor Rick West while practically bumping elbows with fellow members. “And if we meet next week, we are not going to be six feet apart.”


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