STAUNTON, Va. (WVIR) - Thursday night, Staunton City Council shot down a motion that would allow the people to once again phone in during meetings. Meanwhile, peaceful protestors were back during the meeting.
In April, City Council ended the ability for council members to Zoom in during meetings and with it the public’s ability to participate from home.
So many people turned out for Thursday evening’s meeting, they lined council chambers and spilled out into the hallway. But, the conversation about public participation happened before many of them arrived, during a work session.
“I think it’s important that people be able to call in here and talk to us,” said Councilman Terry Holmes. “We’re getting a lot of flack for this.”
Councilwoman Brenda Mead made the motion that would allow people to call in and speak during public hearings and matters from the public. “I feel very strongly that we need to give people access,” stated Mead. “We need to return access to the citizens.”
But the motion failed in a 4-3 vote, with disapproval from protestors.
“I don’t understand,” said Staunton resident Barbara Lee. “And they don’t want to discuss it for the meeting. You gonna put it off another month.” Lee listened to the whole conversation. “We don’t need another meeting. The technician has just said it’s easy to set up, so why put it off till June. You gonna silence us till June,” asked Lee.
Those who voted against the motion want to wait for the City Attorney to draft a Memorandum and vote on it the first meeting in June.
“We need to be able to discuss it as a council, and we need to give it the time it is due. We need to give it due diligence,” said Mayor Andrea Oakes.
“This councilor does not have a problem with people calling in,” said Vice Mayor Mark Robertson. “I do not have a problem, I’ll state it right now, but I would like to work on it, talk about it.” Robertson says he might suggest changes that would apply to people speaking both in-person and virtually.
“We’ve all had a month and a half to think about this issue,” said Councilwoman Carolyn Dull who participated through Zoom. “I don’t need to delay giving people their right of free speech any longer.”
When the formal meeting started, more people arrived to hear of the decision.
“City council could have acted to reinstate phone-in comments without further delay. They chose not to,” stated Mead.
She used her moment of silence for the protestors. “They have given up hours of their time to keep this issue on the front burner,” Mead said. Then she stood, and the roughly two dozen protestors followed her lead.
City Council is expected to discuss virtual participation again at the next meeting with a possible vote next month.