Fairfax County officials in recent months have resumed in-person meetings – albeit masked up – but Vienna board and commission members for a short time longer still will be allowed to take part “virtually.”
The Vienna Town Council on June 7 passed an emergency continuity-of-government ordinance, citing Virginia Code Section 15.2-1413, to allow board and commission members to participate electronically at meetings without a physical quorum present.
This ordinance differs from regular, non-emergency electronic-participation procedures under Virginia Code Section 2.2-3708.2, which require a physical quorum of members to be present at the meeting location and limit how often individual members may check in electronically.
(Members suffering from medical conditions, or who are taking care of family members stricken by health problems, may participate electronically without limit.)
Vienna’s emergency ordinance will expire Dec. 7 or earlier, if the Council desires, said Town Attorney Steven Briglia.
The Council was inclined to resume full-attendance, regular-procedure meetings in early September, but because of the emergence of the COVID Delta variant and ongoing state recommendations regarding masks and social distancing, members decided the safe course of action was to remain under the continuity-of-government procedures until Dec. 7, Briglia said.
Council members Ed Somers and Nisha Patel are among those who frequently have connected virtually with their colleagues at meetings for the past few months.
Somers said he prefers to attend Council meetings in person, as this allows him to participate more easily. With the rise of the COVID Delta variant, participating remotely was a public-health decision, he said.
As chief of staff for the U.S. Conference of Mayors, he often is away on travel or working up until the starting point of Council meetings, so remote participation has been a “major help,” he said.
His day job puts him in contact with local and federal elected officials and expands his knowledge of policy and best practices, which in turn enhance what he can bring to the Council’s dais, Somers added.
Patel, an ophthalmologist, said she participates virtually to reduce the chance of contracting COVID and passing it along to her patients, family members and Council colleagues, some of whom are in the at-risk category.
Patel wears a mask all day at work, so checking in remotely lets her avoid having to do so at evening Council meetings, she said.
“While it’s frustrating to participate virtually because I have to be seen raising my hand and can’t just chime in, I am glad that I have the option to help keep everyone safe,” she said.
Fairfax County’s boards and commissions been meeting on a regular, physical-quorum basis, but have more space to allow for social distancing, Briglia said.
(Vienna’s meetings also differ from Fairfax County’s in that officials and the public are not required to wear masks – although some do – at the town’s gatherings, whereas all must at county meetings.)
The most the Council could extend the deadline for its continuity-of-government ordinance is through Dec. 31, six months after the expiration of Gov. Northam’s declared state of emergency at the end of June, Briglia said.
“If another emergency declaration is issued – heaven forbid – that would change the limit,” he said, adding, “However, it is expected that the town will continue to encourage and allow for the broader methods of public participation that were instituted during COVID-19 to permit the public to participate in a meaningful manner.”