Buckingham: how to provide comment on virtual public hearings

Published 3:50 pm Monday, March 30, 2020

Buckingham County officials have distributed a release detailing how citizens can provide comments for scheduled public hearings for Buckingham County Board of Supervisors meetings during the coronavirus pandemic. 

The release highlights several ways that residents can submit comments to the board, although the methods require certain restrictions.

Written comments for public hearings can be mailed to the board at PO Box 252 Buckingham, VA 23921. Commenters are asked to adhere to a 500 word limit. 

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Comments can also be emailed to publiccomments@buckinghamcounty.virginia.gov. An emailed comment must also adhere to a 500 word limit. 

Telephone voicemail comments can be left to be played to the board by dialing (434) 969-5039. 

Citizens can also appear virtually to the board for comments by emailing publiccomments@buckinghamcounty.virginia.gov. 

After emailing, individuals will receive a notice with a link and/or telephone number to connect virtually during the meeting. 

Commenters are asked to note that a three minute time limit will apply to public comments during public hearings. Individuals should leave their name, district and what specific public hearing they are commenting on. 

All correspondence must be received by the methods listed above and are due by 12:00 p.m. the day of the meeting. 

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s recent mandate ordering gatherings of no more than 10 people has left many localities, such as Buckingham, with the choice of moving to hold certain gatherings virtually for the time being. 

It can be difficult to determine the legalities involved in these virtual meetings, especially in reference to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (VFOIA).  

As a result, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring issued an opinion March 20 permitting public bodies to meet electronically to make urgent decisions, although there are certain limitations. 

Herring said that in enacting VFOIA, the General Assembly included express provisions for how public bodies may conduct meetings during times of emergencies, including three main requirements: that the Governor has declared a state of emergency, that the catastrophic nature of the declared emergency makes it unsafe or impracticable to assemble a quorum at a single location, and that the purpose of the meeting is to address the emergency. 

According to Herring, public bodies must still have a quorum to conduct business. Arrangements should also be made to give the public access to such meetings. 

Virginia Coalition for Open Government’s Megan Rhyne said that the organization is compiling a list of how public bodies in the commonwealth are arranging to meet whilst still complying with social distancing guidelines. 

“We continue to stress that all other elements of public meetings — notice, minutes, and a way for the public to access the meeting — must be in place to respect FOIA’s overall policy that the public’s business not be conducted in an atmosphere of secrecy,” Rhyne added.

“Many localities are providing avenues for the public to view the meeting from home and/or to submit comments via email, phone calls or message boards. Some localities are limiting the type of items that can be on the agenda and/or are postponing public hearings until such time as the public can attend in person.”