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Richmond City Council To Vote On Virtual Meetings During COVID-19 Pandemic

Richmond city council chambers
While Virginia law bans local governments from having virtual meetings, that statute was suspended under Northam’s State of Emergency order. (Photo: Roberto Roldan/VPM News)

On Thursday afternoon, Richmond City Council will vote on new rules that would allow it to hold virtual rather than in-person meetings during the coronavirus pandemic.

City council has had to cancel many of its meetings over the last few weeks, following Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order limiting public gatherings to 10 people or less. Richmond City Council’s new rules would require three days of public notice before a meeting and that it be live streamed online through its Legistar service. While Virginia law bans local governments from having virtual meetings, that statute was suspended under Northam’s State of Emergency order. 

Fourth District City Councilwoman Kristen Larson said that staff is testing out a number of virtual conferencing programs to find the best fit.

“We are working fast and furious behind the scenes to make sure that public comment still exists, as well as public access to our meetings,” Larson said.

As Richmond City Council worked with city attorneys to draft the new rules, activists called on its members to maintain transparency and public accountability. 

The progressive advocacy group Richmond For All sent a letter to city council last week asking it to uphold democratic processes in their new rules, including advance notice of meetings, public access to meeting documents and public comment on any new legislation. All of those requirements have been included.

“We are happy with the proposed rules city council has put together,” said Kristin Reed, co-founder of Richmond For All. “We would also like to see a strong message from city leaders that they will continue to respond to FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests, though.”

According to a memo by the Virginia FOIA Council, a State of Emergency declaration by the governor does not allow local governments to skirt public records request laws. It could, however, be cause for governments to invoke a 7-day extension that’s allowed by law, the council said.

Richmond City Council will debate and vote on the new rules at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday. If passed, the directives would also allow the Richmond School Board to meet virtually. 

 

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