The public’s business must go on.
In what may be the start of the norm for a local governments in the foreseeable future — because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak — the Williamsburg City Council used the technology of video conferencing Thursday and conducted a “public” meeting, albeit from their homes.
That’s the first completely online meeting for the city and featured a number of residents tuning in and commenting on Facebook. One even submitted a question.
After some technical difficulties, City Council members were able to stream the meeting from their homes through Facebook Live, and other video platforms, in order to promote social distancing amid the coronavirus outbreak.
And things got done.
It would have been just one of those council meetings, but this one’s different as the city faced an outbreak that would affect its residents, businesses, livelihoods and lives.
City Council first passed a resolution that confirmed the city’s previous declaration of a local emergency on March 13, but also amended the declaration to include the word “disaster.”
This restated declaration of emergency with the finding of a disaster allows the city greater flexibility for certain actions taken during the pandemic time, said City Attorney Christina Shelton.
For example, the amendment allows for city meetings to be conducted over video, Shelton added.
Vice Mayor Doug Pons said he had spoken with a local business that said the city had to make a certain declaration, such as forcing businesses to close, in order for their insurance to cover the closure. He asked Shelton if this amendment would allow the council to force businesses to close.
Shelton said that while the amendment does give a certain level of authority to the council, there are still emergency actions, such as the closure of businesses, that would need to be approved by Gov. Ralph Northam.
The council unanimously approved the amendment to the resolution.
The second item approved was an ordinance that allowed City Council to establish emergency procedures for continuing the operations of certain aspects of local government.
Shelton said that allows the council members to hold meetings that don’t necessarily pertain to the emergency situation but also cannot be put off for an extended period of time. For example, she said the council could still hold a meeting in regards to the budget.
However, items that are not considered necessary will be postponed to a later date. It is up to City Manager Andrew Trivette to determine which topics are vital enough for a meeting during an extended emergency situation.
The ordinance also allows the council to meet electronically until the emergency has ended or until Sept. 12, depending which comes first. The public has to have the opportunity to participate in the meetings.
Mayor Paul Freiling said it is important for residents to understand if they have items related to topics such as zoning, they might not be able to be considered by the council until the emergency situation has ended.
The City Council also adopted an ordinance that changed the due date for food and beverage and transient lodging tax payments to May 1. These are for tax payments due between March 20 and April 20.
During this time last year, the city collected $952,788 in meals tax and $387,039 in lodging tax.
Pons clarified that during this time, businesses still have the opportunity to submit their reporting form that is regularly due each month but the ordinance allows the businesses to submit the actual tax payments at a later date.
He added the ordinance offers businesses some latitude with their cash flow but that the tax payments will still have to be paid eventually.
“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” said Councilman Benny Zhang. “It’s a small step but nevertheless [important]…especially at a time when our local economy has grinded to a halt.”
The next City Council work session is April 6 at 4 p.m.
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