The Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors faced technological challenges Tuesday as members held their first meeting by telephone amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Most members participated in the regular board meeting from their homes via a telephone conference call. The change was in response to statewide restrictions on public gatherings.
Supervisors voted Tuesday in favor of adopting a resolution by the board to consent to the local director of emergency management’s declaration of a local emergency due to the spread of COVID-19.
Board members also adopted an ordinance assuring the continuity in the county government.
Supervisors amended the board’s rules and procedures to allow, for a limited time, a member to participate in the meeting from a remote location by electronic means. Recent changes to the state code section that governs local government meeting requirements allow board members to participate by electronic means.
Chairman John R. “Dick” Neese conducted the meeting in the board room of the government center in Woodstock. County Administrator Evan Vass and Deputy Clerk Chris Sherman also attended the meeting there. Meanwhile, remaining board members Vice Chairman Steven Baker and Supervisors Bradley Pollack, Karl Roulston, Dennis Morris and Timothy “Tim” Taylor attended and participated in the meeting via telephone conference call. Deputy County Administrator Mandy Belyea and County Attorney Jason Ham also attended the meeting by phone.
The county broadcast the meeting live through a streaming service on the government’s website and it was recorded and made available on the website the next day. County officials acknowledged Wednesday that the system used posed challenges, particularly with the audio portion, and they plan to look at possible alternatives for future meetings.
The county did not allow the public to attend the meeting in person but directed those interested to view and listen to the broadcast online.
A special county email inbox was set up to accept public comments ahead of the meeting. Four messages were received by 4 p.m. Tuesday. Vass had started to read comments when Roulston asked members if they had received an email from Karen Kwiatkowski.
Pollack voiced concern that the audio might not be audible and then he made a motion to take all comments and post them online. Vass told members the audience might not be able to hear them as clearly. Taylor said viewers’ experience could depend on what system they use to watch and listen to the meeting. Pollack eventually withdrew his motion and Vass continued with reading the comments.
Woodstock resident Matthew Pandel wrote in his comment that the board should consider live-streaming all future meetings. Neighboring communities that live-stream their public meetings see improved citizen engagement, Pandel noted in his comment read by Vass. Pandel suggested the county reach out to Warren County for guidance.
Edinburg resident Kathleen Curtis voiced in her comments criticism of the board’s choice to hold its meeting in the chosen fashion.
“Despite the directives to abstain from meeting in groups, it is clear that the Board of Supervisors feels it necessary to continue holding meetings to discuss items concerning the welfare and business of citizens of the county,” Vass read from Curtis’ comments. “I understand this perspective. However, in the current climate of uncertainty that affects us all to some degree, and for the many county citizens and business owners who are experiencing abject fear and trepidation, please ensure that the BOS will only counsel together on the most urgent matters and elect to lay the rest aside until a more appropriate time when the meetings can be truly public and freely attended.”
Curtis went on in her comments to urge the board to not increase spending in any area of the county budget next fiscal cycle. She then suggested the board cut spending by 5 to 10% to ease pressure on county households and businesses. She pointed out in her comments that the live-streaming service is not available to all county residents.
“If such internet access and bandwidth were available countywide to every household, there would be some sort of e-learning provided to our high school and elementary school students rather than having no classes or educational component offered to them during this lockdown,” Vass read from Curtis’ comments. “The fact that there is not demonstrates the point that streaming audio is not a viable nor effective avenue for accessibility and true transparency for the public meetings held by county administration.”
Curtis questioned the transparency if the comments submitted by email were not read aloud at the meeting.
“The opportunity to address the board openly and in person and to be heard by other citizens is actually being denied when the public is not permitted to appear and meetings are held with audio streaming only,” Vass said, reading from Curtis’ comments. “Any further BOS meetings should be held in an interactive format or delayed until citizens can once again be permitted to attend.”
Edinburg resident Stephen Curtis urged supervisors in his comments read by Vass to hold the line on spending in next year’s budget. Stephen Curtis went on to say he had intended to apologize for previously interrupting the board at an earlier meeting.
“Sufficed to say, I was suffering from coronavirus hysteria syndrome — a condition brought on by economic fear brought on from our present situation, the same condition that has caused toilet paper to disappear,” Vass said, reading from Stephen Curtis’ comments.
Stephen Curtis questioned the leadership in Shenandoah County, noting that the “void” falls on the county administrator and schools Superintendent Mark Johnston who control the budgets and employees, Vass read. Stephen Curtis then recommended that county leaders go out and talk to people to find out how the crisis affects individuals and families, large and small businesses, and to hold a virtual town hall meeting to receive questions and provide answers. Stephen Curtis suggested that the leaders gather all government and school employees and warn them they could see pay cuts if the economy falters.
Vass then read comments submitted by Timothy King. King stated that he sees a conflict between the county’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the board’s previously adopted resolution to deem the county a Second Amendment sanctuary. King explained in the comments read by Vass that the governor’s office could use tactics, under the guise of responding to the coronavirus pandemic, to enact more control over firearms. King said that the governor’s office could also make it possible for law enforcement agencies to confiscate firearms from residents receiving emergency aid. King then asked the board to exclude any language in the emergency resolution that contradicts the declaration of the resolution the county adopted as a Second Amendment sanctuary.