By Dan Holmes
At a time when Virginians are focused on the significant disruptions and hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, localities across the commonwealth are wrestling with how to continue their operations, what matters they should be addressing, and how they should proceed with the business of local government. Under guidance of the governor and attorney general, many are, admirably, limiting public hearings to those that will provide for the immediate needs of their community related to this crisis and in the delivery of essential services. Loudoun County, however, is moving on with business, including public hearings, as usual. (County Leaders Defend Ceremonial Resolutions Under Emergency Rules; Plan Public Hearings, Loudoun Now, 4/9/20)
Attorney General Mark Herring offered this interpretation of law to localities: “when considering how to conduct public meetings while the state of emergency remains in effect, we must remember that the requirements of VFOIA (Virginia Freedom of Information Act), open government, and transparency remain critically important.” Governor Northam added: ”General Herring’s opinion makes clear that public bodies should ask themselves: is the action we are taking truly essential? If not, they should defer it until they meet in person again.”
And yet, Loudoun County’s next several meetings include multiple zoning, land-use and development proposals that are not critical to respond to the emergency at hand and not essential to operation of government. Furthermore, all of these issues all require public hearing opportunities. And although Loudoun is actively thinking about how to enable public participation within the parameters of social distancing, a significant portion of the population does not have the bandwidth right now to focus on these land use considerations and their long-term, and often costly, impacts. The right thing for Loudoun County to do is to postpone these items until the public emergency is behind us.
People are in crisis. I learned this week that an elder family member has tested positive for COVID-19 and that my infant child, young daughter, spouse and I have all been exposed and are at risk. We are all quarantined with some exhibiting symptoms and all the worries that come with that. Some community members have already or will soon be dealing with the loss of friends and family. Many have lost their jobs and are struggling with how to feed their families and keep the lights on. Those lucky enough to still be working are trying to figure out how to be simultaneously an effective employee, caregiver, and/or teacher to their children who are now home for the rest of the school year. Many continue to serve us at great personal risk.
Loudoun’s actions are legal under Virginia code (section 15.2-1413). But, given everything else people are dealing with, we owe our community members respect and great compassion right now, not the added stress of tracking non-essential government actions or health risks in order to participate in the governing process. And no matter how much effort Loudoun puts into enabling public participation, people are just not able to pay attention in these unprecedented times. Localities generally try to avoid public hearings near major holidays for this reason. Surely, the current crisis reaches a level of distraction far beyond that.
The commonwealth is under a state of emergency; many counties have declared their own emergencies. Gov. Northam has directed all Virginians to leave their homes only in extremely limited circumstances related to food and health, all with strict social distancing requirements. White House Coronavirus Task Force Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx said last weekend: “this is the moment to not be going to the grocery store, not going to the pharmacy, but doing everything you can to keep your family and your friends safe.” The Supreme Court of Virginia has continued all cases that do not involve immediate public safety or a constitutional right to a speedy trial. The repeated message is “Stay Home.”
We respect Loudoun County Attorney Leo Roger’s statement that the county “needs to continue the business of the county” during the pandemic. But carrying out non-essential public hearings and land-use decisions seems to be in direct conflict with the moral imperative set forth by our governor and attorney general. We urge Loudoun County to take a ‘pause’ on land-use issues and first ask: “Is it truly essential and immediate?” Consider the public you serve, focus on making only those decisions critical to keeping our country/communities moving forward, set others aside until the public can participate in a meaningful way, and in so doing, carry out your duties in a way that protects public health, safety, and welfare.
We know that many regular operations must continue, but it’s important to preserve public involvement for all as the most fundamental aspect of our democracy, without the extra distractions that so many are facing. Let’s deal with non-essential matters once the immediate guidelines are lifted. Our leaders, in this moment, need to lead by focusing on actions that will support a positive health outcome and the protection of our communities.
Dan Holmes is the State Policy Director at the Piedmont Environmental Council.