More remote meetings optional for public officials

A recent amendment to state law gives county and town elected and appointed officials more leeway in how often they attend meetings from a remote location for personal reasons.

Current law allows officials to participate in meetings electronically just twice per calendar year. After July 1, they will be allowed to do so at 25 percent of each year’s meetings.

The amendment does not change the unlimited number of meetings an official can attend remotely for medical reasons. But it adds a provision that officials can also miss in-person meetings if they themselves are not sick, but are caring for a family member who is ill.

The law applies to elected officials like the board of supervisors, town council and school board members, as well as appointed members of groups such as the county planning commission. Officials are supposed to say at the beginning of a meeting why they are participating remotely, although they do not have to say publicly where they are calling from.

The change in state law follows a recommendation by the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council. Back in 2008, the council issued a statement that in-person meetings “should continue to be the rule rather than the exception” and that showing up in person is “one of the primary responsibilities of accepting public office,” according to the Virginia Mercury.

The Mercury reported that the Virginia chapter of the American Association of University Women had recently criticized the state’s “narrow approach” to electronic participation limits in a letter to the FOIA Council.

“We believe that the restrictions on participation in meetings of public bodies by electronic communications are antiquated and ignore the life circumstances and experiences found in the diverse population, limit citizen participation to the privileged few and adversely impact participation by single parents, women and other underrepresented populations,” the group wrote.

But the expanded opportunity for remote participation is a concern for the Virginia Press Association and Virginia Coalition for Open Government, which worry about officials’ decreased accountability to the public.

“No one forces you to be on a board,” said Betsy Edwards, Virginia Press Association executive director. “You have a certain number of meetings you have to attend. If you can’t, you should resign and let someone else do it. I guess I’m old-fashioned that way.”

Both of the law’s medical provisions could have applied in the past year for Frances Goodman, the Louisa County School Board member for the Jackson District. Goodman missed 16 of 17 board meetings entirely in 2020 and has missed four so far this year. She attended the other two meetings this year by phone. She said she missed numerous meetings in 2020 while caring for her ailing husband; more recently she has been coping with a serious medical issue of her own.

Goodman said though she has missed a lot of votes during meetings over the past year, she talks regularly with Superintendent Doug Straley to keep up with what’s happening. She said she intends to participate in meetings by phone going forward.

Three other school board members participated in a meeting remotely in the past year due to medical conditions. Six of the seven members of the board of supervisors called in from a remote location at least once, either for medical or personal reasons. 

Nothing in state law appears to limit how many meetings an elected or appointed official can miss entirely.

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, many public bodies across the state have been meeting remotely, citing Governor Ralph Northam’s emergency order. Louisa Town Council held several meetings online, but the Louisa County Board of Supervisors has continued to meet in person. The school board held a single meeting in spring 2020 via a telephone call, then went back to meeting the usual way.

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