The next Danville City Council meeting is scheduled for April 7. If it meets then, it will be its first since council canceled its March 17 regular meeting because of the coronavirus.
City staff plans to meet soon to hear guidance from the city attorney on how to hold the next council session.
“We’re planning to have a meeting in the very near future to see how this will look,” said Danville City Manager Ken Larking.
Meetings of other city boards and commissions — which also canceled meetings this month — will be discussed during that meeting as well, he said.
The Danville Utility Commission canceled its Monday meeting because of the coronavirus.
“We would exceed the 10 people per meeting under the governor’s mandate,” said Danville Utilities director Jason Grey. “It’s unsure if we’ll have one in April, but we’ll see.”
Messages left with the city attorney’s office were not returned Thursday.
According to city code, city council can cancel a meeting when it appears there will be no quorum.
“When it reasonably appears that a quorum will not be present at a subsequent regular meeting of Council, Council may by resolution at any prior regular meeting cancel such subsequent regular meeting,” the code states.
The city clerk must publish a notice of the cancellation in a local newspaper at least seven days before the date of the meeting, according to the code.
“However, no more than one regular meeting in any calendar month may be canceled,” the code states.
Local governments must strike a balance between holding board and council meetings and respecting social distancing and coronavirus safety concerns.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring provided an advisory opinion on the matter last week.
Despite guidance to avoid large gatherings, Herring said in an advisory opinion issued last Friday that government bodies cannot simply turn to electronic or teleconference meetings to conduct routine public business, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.
But there are exceptions in dire circumstances.
State law “permits public bodies that are unable to assemble in person because of the unique characteristics of the COVID-19 virus to meet electronically to make decisions that must be made immediately and where failure to do so could result in irrevocable public harm,” Herring wrote in the opinion.
Herring cautioned even during a state of emergency declared by Gov. Ralph Northam, Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act and meeting transparency requirements remain in effect, the Times-Dispatch reported.
“That fundamental commitment to openness must be upheld and maintained even as we consider alternative methods to conduct the operation of the government,” Herring wrote.
As to the matter of canceling meetings, Herring spokeswoman Charlotte Gomer referred questions to local attorneys.
“They are responsible for and have significant experience meeting requirements, so they’re really the front lines on this,” Gomer wrote in an email.
Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, would not comment on local governing bodies canceling meetings.
“The coalition doesn’t really take a position on when people should have meetings,” Rhyne said. “There are all kinds of reasons in normal situations why people cancel meetings. That’s not something we comment on.”
Her group, however, is keeping an eye on how local governments and school districts are responding, she said.
There are a lot of council, board and commission members in general who are in the high-risk category for serious complications if they catch the coronavirus due to their age, she pointed out.
The coalition wants them to be safe, but to make sure — however they hold their meetings — the public has access to those proceedings, she said.
Crane reports for the Register & Bee. He can be reached at (434) 791-7987.