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Alexandria starts to move away from virtually accessible meetings

While City Council usually has the final say over big decisions, much of the city’s future starts taking shape in Alexandria’s boards and commissions. After two years of those meetings going online and recorded for public viewing, many of them are starting to go offline again.

The Waterfront Commission, for example, has been where many of the details about flooding in Old Town have been hashed out. The 7:30 a.m. meetings have historically had fairly light public attendance. With the start of the pandemic those meetings were recorded and published online until last month, when the group stopped recording meetings.

City leaders have repeatedly called expanded public participation in meetings one of the few good things to emerge from the pandemic — along with to-go cocktails. At AlexTV, those curious about city policies can view a backlog of everything from Transportation Commission meetings to meetings of the Sister Cities Committee, but over the next few months that selection will start to slim down.

Alexandria communications officer Andrea Blackford said the authority for full virtual meetings was an emergency authority that will go away with the expiration of the City’s declaration of emergency at the end of June. That change doesn’t prevent the city from recording and publishing footage of meetings, but Blackford said it’s a question of staff resources.

“The FOIA open meetings rules allow for limited electronic participation by members of public bodies and do allow for unlimited participation electronically by staff or the public,” Blackford said. “However, the actual meeting of the public body has to be in person with a quorum of members in the room. Virtual participation by the public while the public body is meeting in person, known as a hybrid meeting, is much more resource intensive to conduct than a fully virtual meeting, due to the technology requirements for a hybrid meeting.”

While Blackford said that while hybrid meetings of the City Council and Planning Commission will continue, the city doesn’t have the manpower to continue with hybrid meetings for other commissions.

“Therefore, some boards and commissions may need to hold in-person meetings without a virtual component because the City does not have the resources available for all boards and commissions to conduct hybrid meetings,” Blackford said. “The legal rules apply the same to all public bodies — including all boards, commissions and City Council. We have prioritized hybrid meetings of the City Council and Planning Commission as those are the meetings with the most public participation.”

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