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How often should local governments meet virtually? Lawmakers likely to tackle that question during upcoming session

The Virginia Redistricting Commission gathering public comment for the Central Region, on October 6th, 2021.
Virginia Redistricting Commission
The Virginia Redistricting Commission gathering public comment for the Central Region, on October 6th, 2021.

The pandemic changed many aspects of modern life. And, it may also end up changing how local government works.

Now that the public health emergency declaration has expired, all those old rules prohibiting virtual participation in local government meetings – well, they’re back in place. But maybe not for all that long.

Delegate-elect Elizabeth Bennett-Parker is a Democrat from Alexandria who has been pressing for more virtual participation in local government ever since, well, before the pandemic began.

"I think we've seen over the past year and a half increased participation both by members of the bodies and members of the public in the switch to virtual meetings and I can give you numerous examples about how this has helped them be more effective and efficient," Bennett-Parker says.

Advocates for open government are worried about the potential downsides of virtual government. Megan Rhyne at the Coalition for Open Government says there's no substitute for in-person meetings.

"They have to look each other in the eye, and they also have to look at the public in the eye," explains Rhyne. "Then the public gets to witness how they interact with each other and can be pretty confident that there aren't things going on in the side chat room that they don't have access to."

The Freedom of Information Advisory Council is recommending a compromise – members of a local board or commission can participate in two meetings a year or up to 25% of the meetings, whichever is greater depending on how many times the body meets. Lawmakers will consider that bill when the General Assembly meets in-person next year.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.