STAUNTON, Va. (WHSV) — Staunton City Council discussed multiple measures during Thursday’s meeting that led to a split vote among council members.
The council voted 4-3 to repeal the uncodified emergency ordinance. This means the council will no longer be able to meet virtually and community members also cannot call into the meetings.
“An abundance of the vaccinations being given, and we’re starting to see business as usual coming about in Virginia,” Staunton Mayor Andrea Oakes said as a reason for supporting the vote.
She said it’s important for council members to face the community at meetings and have things return to how they were, but Councilwoman Brenda Mead believes the council needs to evolve.
“The paradigm has shifted,” Mead said. “They’re not adapting to the future. They’re not using technology.”
The city spent $200,000 upgrading technology in council chambers to allow for virtual means of communication and live streaming to continue having meetings and hearing from the public throughout the pandemic.
Mead said that money has been wasted.
“I don’t believe it was wasted because we were able to use it for the reason it was put into place and that was the pandemic,” Oakes said. “That technology will be used for other means, such as being able to provide PowerPoints that can be seen by everyone throughout the chambers.”
Council members who opposed the vote were also concerned about the accessibility to meetings.
“When they voted to end the ordinance, they also created a difficulty for members of the public to come into City Council Chambers,” Mead said.
She said there is not enough space in chambers to accommodate a lot of people with social distancing measures in place.
“We could live stream from Zoom to Facebook and include closed captioning for our deaf community, and allow elderly and disabled, people who have small children. There’s so many reasons, people who work shift work, people who need to do some chores at home but could still participate, listen and call in,” Councilwoman Carolyn Dull added.
Oakes said that the council is accessible and will continue being accessible to the public despite this repeal.
Dr. Laura Kornegay, the director of the Central Shenandoah Health District, said the number of cases in the state is not surging, and moving to fully in-person meetings would not be detrimental to public health. She said this was an issue council could consider, but she did not recommend eliminating virtual meetings.
Other public bodies in Staunton are still able to have virtual meetings if they choose. The measure voted on Thursday only applies to city council.
The council also voted 4-3 to adopt a resolution that authorizes the Fire Marshal to have police powers, including carrying a gun and having the ability to make arrests.
“It makes sense that we supply our fire department, our fire marshal with the measures that he needs to do his job at its fullest extent,” Oakes explained as the fire marshal is tasked with sometimes investigating crimes, like arson.
The start-up and training costs would be around $3,000 and those opposed to the vote say it’s unnecessary spending.
“In this time of pandemic and with the other needs that the city has, we want to try to help our school system in this budget, the fact that we’re trying to implement something that seemed to not be a problem until now that’s going to cost us money just seems so wasteful,” Dull said.
There were also concerns that the matter was brought up by going around the city manager, who oversees city employees, but Oakes said they followed the city manager’s recommendation by having a discussion as a council.