Albemarle County changed its standard operating procedures (SOPs) regarding virtual meetings last spring, but that message was not conveyed to the Crozet Community Advisory Committee (CCAC) until six weeks ago. Shortly after pandemic restrictions began in March and April of 2020, the county decided that the “Chat” function on Zoom’s virtual meeting platform would be disabled for online public business meetings. This meant that people attending the meetings could not send chat messages to one another during the proceedings.
For the CCAC’s January 27 meeting, Chair Allie Pesch had sent out the group’s agenda with instructions on how to use the Chat function and had reiterated those instructions just minutes before county planners began their presentation, yet no one corrected Pesch until it became clear that the Chat was turned off. At that point, Albemarle planning manager Rachel Falkenstein acknowledged the procedure change, which came as a surprise to most of the meeting’s participants and attendees.
“We have new SOPs around community meetings and we are having the Chat and Q&A disabled, so we request that if people want to speak during the discussion portion, they can raise their hand,” said Falkenstein. “We found [the Chat is] way too much for staff and committees to manage, so that’s a county-wide decision. I’m sorry, that was a decision that was made above my level and I intended to tell everyone, but it slipped my mind.”
Pesch and others took issue with the abrupt, unannounced change. “I think the way we’ve moved from using the Chat and Q&A to just cutting it off with no warning really deserved a press release or some kind of a formal announcement,” said Pesch. “That’s kind of a big change from the way we’ve been doing it.”
CCAC member Tom Loach was more pointed. “I object to this one-sided decision [to disable the Chat function],” said Loach to county staffers. “I think it’s vital that this committee sees the input coming in from the community. I suspect what happened is that you didn’t like the input you were getting and you decided this was a good way to squelch it. This is just one more instance of the county heavy-handing the CCAC.”
The county’s director of communications and public engagement, Emily Kilroy, explained the decision’s timeline in comments after the meeting. “Back in April we established our virtual meeting procedures for Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors meetings, and we rolled them out for the smaller [community advisory] meetings in June and July,” said Kilroy. She said that county staff were instructed to reach out to committee chairs to let them know of the Chat change, “but unfortunately that just didn’t happen” in all cases.
“I’d like to point out that we had 255 virtual meetings in 2020 and zero in 2019, so we are making mistakes because we are learning as we go,” said Kilroy. The early decision to disable the Chat function was made after an incident of “Zoom bombing” last spring. “At the first or second Supervisors meeting last year, someone in the Chat posted over a hundred hateful thoughts in the course of five minutes, expressing hate toward lots of protected identities,” she said. “At public meetings, we cannot remove someone from the meeting because of the content of what they’re saying, so we had to make a choice.”
Kilroy said the county is balancing several obligations in its decision. “We have to consider the Freedom of Information Act as it pertains to public meetings, and we want a safe and welcoming environment that everyone can participate in, and also we need to preserve an effective meeting space for the public body to conduct the meeting,” she said. The county’s choice of Zoom as its virtual meeting platform played a role as well.
“We went with Zoom over some other options because it allows us to offer a toll-free telephone option for people that don’t have internet access, which not only allows you to listen live over the phone, but you can also participate live by making a public comment by phone,” said Kilroy. “However, if people are on the phone and there’s a lot of stuff happening in the Chat, then they’re not able to see that information or participate in that conversation, so that disadvantages those people. To comply with open meeting laws, we have to transact public business in a fully publicly available manner.”
Kilroy said that the change in procedures does not affect the Q&A function, and that remains a choice of each meeting’s coordinator. Without Chat, the public can still sign up to speak at meetings, can post a comment on the county’s Public Input forum, and can email or call county staff with comments. “Really, I would like to own that this was not handled well,” she said, “and our intent was to implement the procedure in all meetings. So, when we realized that the Chat was still open at the Planning Commission meeting in early January, we did a refresh on the procedures with staff and now we’ll be consistent going forward.”