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Ordinance passed, public comments suspended

In an emergency Board of Supervisors (BOS) meeting held Tuesday, March 31, the Buckingham BOS passed a Continuity of Government Ordinance. Certain members of the board also voted to temporarily suspend public comments at regular meetings during the emergency declaration. 

The emergency ordinance, put in place to allow for the continuity of local government operations during the COVID-19 pandemic, alters the process for conducting public meetings in the county, restricts the use of public buildings and facilities and provides additional powers to emergency management officials. 

Language in the ordinance states that the move will allow for variances from state laws and other county ordinances in order to protect the health, safety and welfare of residents and employees while still allowing government operations to continue during the state of emergency. 

The ordinance contains modifications for public meetings when it is deemed unwise or unsafe to gather in one location as a quorum, or to invite members of the public to physically gather at public meetings. 

The emergency ordinance, effective immediately, will remain in effect for 60 days unless amended, rescinded or readopted. The ordinance cannot be effective for more than six months from the conclusion of the declared disaster that prompts it. 

The ordinance states that any regular meeting of any public body may be canceled by the chair if there is no essential business that needs to be handled, or if conditions make it impractical to meet. The public must be notified of any cancellations as soon as possible. 

In relation to this, any regular meeting of a public body may be held solely by electronic or telephonic means without a quorum and without members of the public physically present, provided that the meeting is accessible to the public through audio or video, social media or a dial-in telephone number. The agenda and public notice for the meeting must include a statement that the meeting is being held using electronic means, must contain specific information of how the public can access the meeting and if there are public hearing or public comment items, the agenda and public notice must specify how the public can provide comment.

The ordinance establishes certain powers of the county’s Director of Emergency Management, County Administrator Rebecca Carter, including restricting members of the public from entering or congregating around county-owned buildings, facilities and property to ensure the health and safety of the public or county staff. 

The full ordinance is as follows:

 

Emergency Ordinance to Allow for the Continuity of Government Operations During the Pandemic, including Altering the Process for Conducting Public Meetings; Restricting the Use of Public Buildings or Facilities; Providing Additional Powers to the Director of Emergency Management to Incur Costs, Waive Procedures, and Take Other Temporary Actions; and Suspending Deadlines and Procedures 

WHEREAS, on January 31, 2020, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency in response to the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID- 19); andWHEREAS, on March 12, 2020, the Governor, in Executive Order 51, declared a state of emergency in the Commonwealth of Virginia, acknowledging the spread of COVID-19 as a disaster as defined in Virginia Code § 44-146.16; and 

WHEREAS, Executive Order 51 authorized local governments to render appropriate assistance and to alleviate conditions, as appropriate, to prepare for and mitigate the effects of the virus; and 

WHEREAS, on March 13, 2020, the President of the United States found and declared the outbreak of COVID-19 to constitute a national emergency, beginning March 1, 2020; and 

WHEREAS, on March 17, 2020, in accordance with Virginia Code § 44-146.21, the Buckingham County Director of Emergency Management declared a local state of emergency in Buckingham County; and 

WHEREAS, on March 17 and 23, the Governor requested and then directed Virginians to avoid non-essential gatherings of more than 10 people and on March 30 ordered individuals to remain at their place of residence, with limited exceptions; and 

WHEREAS, the Buckingham County Board of Supervisors on March 18, 2020 confirmed, pursuant to Virginia Code § 44-146.21, the declaration of emergency in Buckingham County; and 

WHEREAS, the Board of Supervisors has determined that COVID-19 constitutes a communicable disease of public health threat which has caused a disaster as those terms are defined in Virginia Code § 44-146.16; and 

WHEREAS, while the Board of Supervisors values transparency in government and public engagement, it also finds that emergency measures are necessary to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and to protect the health, safety, and welfare of residents and employees, while still providing for government operations to continue during this state of emergency; and 

WHEREAS, Virginia Code § 15.2-1413 provides that the Board of Supervisors, notwithstanding any contrary provision of law, may adopt an ordinance to assure the continuity of government operations during this disaster and for up to six months; and 

WHEREAS, Virginia Code § 44-146.21 further provides that the locality, during a declared local emergency, may proceed without regard to time-consuming procedures and formalities prescribed by law, except for mandatory constitutional requirements; and 

WHEREAS, Virginia Code § 15.2-1200 provides the county with authority to adopt necessary regulations to prevent the spread of contagious diseases among its residents; and 

WHEREAS, the Board of Supervisors also has the inherent authority to vary the county’s policies, procedures, and practices to assure the continuity of government operations; and 

WHEREAS, government operations includes the work of the Board of Supervisors and other local public bodies, and the personnel who work for or on behalf of local public bodies; and 

WHEREAS, this emergency ordinance in response to the disaster caused by the COVID- 19 pandemic promotes the public health, safety, and welfare, and its adoption is consistent with the law of the Commonwealth of Virginia, the Virginia Constitution and the United States Constitution. 

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT ORDAINED, that this uncodified ordinance is hereby enacted as follows: 

An Emergency Ordinance Allowing for the Continuity of Government Operations During the Pandemic 

Sec. 1. Purpose; Effective Date; Expiration 

This ordinance allows for variances from state laws and county ordinances in order to protect the health, safety, and welfare of residents and employees from the spread of COVID-19 while still providing for government operations to continue during this state of emergency. 

The operation of government includes management of all county facilities, management of the school system, and the work of all local boards, including the board of supervisors, the school board, the planning commission, the board of equalization, the board of zoning appeals, and any other local or regional board, commission, committee, or authority created by the board of supervisors or to which the board of supervisors appoints or recommends for appointment all or a portion of its members (collectively “Public Bodies” and individually “Public Body”), including employees who work for or on behalf of any Public Body. 

At this time, public health experts recommend against assembling groups of people in confined spaces. Accordingly, this ordinance contains modifications for public meetings which should be followed while it is deemed unwise or unsafe to gather in one location a quorum for any Public Bodies, or to invite members of the public to physically gather together for public meetings. Moreover, the spread of COVID-19 may make it impossible or impractical for government operations to meet all normally imposed deadlines, regulations, and time frames, or to comport, in some instances, with lengthy procedures and processes such as procurement or employment processes. 

This emergency ordinance is effective immediately and will remain in effect for 60 days unless amended, rescinded, or readopted in conformity with the notice provisions of Virginia Code § 15.2-1427; however, in no event will the ordinance be effective for more than six months from the conclusion of the declared disaster. Upon repeal or expiration of this ordinance, normal government operations will resume. 

Sec. 2. Public Meetings and Public Hearings 

  1. Any regularly scheduled or regular meeting of any Public Body may be canceled by the chair if there is no essential business that needs to occur or if conditions otherwise make it impractical to meet. Notice of the cancellation must be provided to the Public Body members and the public as soon as practicable. 
  2. In the alternative, any regularly scheduled or regular meeting of any Public Body may be held by solely electronic or telephonic means without a quorum of members physically present and without members of the public physically present, provided the following occurs: 

1) The meeting is accessible to the public through live audio or video on the County’s or Public Body’s website, a dial-in telephone number, or a media platform. 

2) The agenda and public notice for the meeting must: 

  1. a) include a statement that the meeting is being held using electronic means under 

this ordinance; b) contain specific information about how members of the public can access the 

meeting; and c) if there are any public hearing or public comment items, specifically identify how members of the public can provide comment, including one or more of the following: by e-mail, in writing, by telephone, through a social media platform, or via other electronic means. 

3) The agenda is posted on the County’s or Public Body’s website at least four (4) days prior to the meeting, except that the agenda of any regularly scheduled meeting occurring within seven days of the adoption of this ordinance must be posted by two working days after adoption of this ordinance. Other materials associated with the meeting, if any, must be made available to the public at the same time they are provided to the Public Body members, unless an exemptions allowed by law. 

4) For public hearings and any items for which public comment is permitted, the following rules apply: 

  1. a) Normal rules of order apply with respect to requiring the name and home address of the commenter, that comments relate to the hearing or comment topic, that appropriate limits on the number of comments per person per item apply, and that comments be of reasonable length, not to exceed three (3) minutes if audible and five hundred (500) words, if written. b) Public Bodies may allow public comments to be submitted via phone call, e-mail, or in writing, up until 3 hours before the start of the meeting so long as those comments are provided to the Public Body members prior to any decision on an item. c) If available, members of the public may provide comments through leaving a voicemail on a dedicated phone number up until a reasonable time before the start of the meeting so long as those comments are then provided to the Public Body members prior to any decision on an item. d) If available, members of the public may provide comments through telephonic or interactive electronic means (call-in meeting access, media platform) during the meeting so long as those comments are received by or provided to the Public Body members prior to any decision on an item. e) The Public Body may choose to receive additional comments through any means for a period of time after the public hearing or public meeting, so long as it announces and publicizes that opportunity and those comments are provided to the Public Body members prior to any decision on an item. f) All public comments must be made a part of the record of the Public Body either 

by being summarized in or included with the meeting minutes. 

5) Any votes taken during the meeting must be taken by roll call, individually recording each member’s name and vote. 

6) The minutes of any meeting under this ordinance must conform to the requirements of law, including identifying the forms of electronic communication used, the members participating and the means by which they participated, the opportunities for public access or participation, a summary of the public comments, if any, and the actions taken at the meeting. 

  1. Public Bodies may hold special meetings consistent with the provisions in (B) except that notice of the special meeting need only be provided at least two working days prior to the meeting, and the agenda and associated materials, if any, need to be made available to the public at the same time as they are made available to the Public Body members. 
  2. Public Bodies may hold emergency meetings consistent with Virginia Code § 2.2-3708. 
  3. Any item on an agenda for a regularly scheduled, regular, special, or emergency meeting held hereunder may be continued to a later date or time for the purpose of reviewing and considering comments from the public. 

Sec. 3. Public Buildings, Facilities, Real Property and Events 

The Director of Emergency Management is empowered to restrict members of the public from entering or congregating around county-owned buildings, facilities, and real property as is reasonably necessary to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of the public or county staff. Moreover, the Director of Emergency Management may cancel, postpone, or reschedule any events scheduled for any county-owned building, facility or property as necessary to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of the public or county staff. 

Sec. 4. Additional powers of Director of Emergency Management 

  1. Funding and Contracts. To the extent of unobligated funds available in excess of appropriations in the approved budget, the Director of Emergency Management may enter into contracts and incur obligations necessary to protect the health and safety of persons and property, and to provide emergency assistance to persons affected by this disaster. 
  2. Procedures. The Director of Emergency Management may proceed without regard to time-consuming procedures and formalities prescribed by law (except mandatory constitutional requirements) pertaining to the performance of public work, entering into contracts, incurring obligations, employing workers, renting equipment, purchasing supplies and materials, and other expenditures of public funds. 
  3. Other Temporary Actions. The Director of Emergency Management may temporarily take any of the following actions: waive or reduce fees imposed by county ordinance; waive enforcement, in whole or in part, of any county ordinance; and modify, limit, waive, suspend, or amend any county program, service, function, process, or procedure. The director must apply the action uniformly for similar situations and not on a case-by-case basis. The director’s actions will only be effective until the next regular meeting of the board of supervisors. The board of supervisors may ratify and extend the time for which the director’s action remains in effect. 

Sec. 5. Suspension of Deadlines, Time Frames, and Procedures 

County personnel are encouraged to take action as is practical and appropriate to meet deadlines or time frames established under state law or county ordinances, however, notwithstanding any provision of law, regulation, or policy to the contrary, any deadlines requiring action by the county, any Public Body, or county employees are suspended. Time frames for review or expedited reviews are also suspended. Failure to meet any deadline or time frame will not constitute a default, violation, approval, ratification, or recommendation. Any policies or procedures inconsistent with this ordinance are hereby suspended. 

This ordinance shall be effective upon adoption. 

This ordinance shall expire after 60 days unless re-adopted by the Board of Supervisors after public notice. 

 

During the emergency meeting five of the six board members present voted to temporarily suspend public comments from regular board meetings.

Carter said the restriction on comments aims to limit the length of meetings during the emergency declaration. She stressed citizens can always send their comments and concerns to her email or mail in comments to make sure their concerns are presented to constituents’ supervisors. 

District 4 Supervisor Thomas Jordan Miles III was the only supervisor to vote against the suspension of comments. Miles stated during the meeting that he felt it was important to allow the public to comment on regular meetings via phone or email. 

District 1 Supervisor Bobby Jones was not present at the meeting and therefore did not cast a vote. 

Members of the public can still provide comment on public hearings scheduled for the county via phone call, email or mail methods. However, the public comments section of all regular meetings will be suspended for the time being.