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Vice Mayor Proposes Expand Public Comment Options

As the city continues to adapt to primarily virtual meetings, Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker is spearheading an effort to open up new ways for the public to provide input on city affairs.

While the move coincides with the extended online-only year of city governance, Bennett-Parker said the issue also taps into earlier lack of online access for city residents.

“While residents can watch our meetings on channel 70, stream our meetings online, and access recordings afterwards, they did not have a way to truly participate online until we moved our meetings to Zoom in response to COVID-19,” Bennett-Parker said in a message to the City Council. “This memo seeks to build upon this experience and sustain it once we return to in-person meetings, recognizing that requiring in-person attendance creates barriers to participation.”

Bennett-Parker noted in the memo that in some ways, the city is restricted by the Code of Virginia. Section 2.2-3708.2 outlines specific requirements for virtual engagement, but Bennett-Parker noted in her memo that the code section specifically states that the section should not be construed to “prohibit use of interactive audio or video means to expand public participation.”

“Our ability to expand options for public comment via the use of video and audio means is thus a question of policy and resources.,” Bennett-Parker said. “With the agreement of my colleagues, I would like to ask staff to return to Council with information regarding what resources would be needed to expand our ability to receive public comment at Council meetings…”

Bennett-Parker requested that the staff look into accepting the following forms of public input:

  • Submission of video or audio files sent directly via email or through a link to YouTube or a cloud service such as Dropbox, to a designated email address;
  • Calling a telephone number established for this purpose and leaving a message; and
  • Providing live remote comments via Zoom, Skype, or similar platform once we return to in-person meetings and are no longer in a state of emergency.

Eventually, Bennett-Parker said other boards and commissions could adopt a similar standard.

“While this initiative, if ultimately approved, would start with Council, it would be my hope that it could be expanded to the Planning Commission and other Boards and Commissions that receive public comment,” Bennett-Parker said.

Bennett-Parker’s memo is scheduled for review by the City Council at the meeting tonight.

Staff photo (pre-pandemic) by James Cullum

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