Interim city manager appointment leads to adoption of electronic meeting policy

When the Charlottesville City Council on July 31 appointed Mike Murphy as interim city manager, only three councilors were in the room.

Councilor Heather Hill listened to the special meeting over the phone but did not participate. Mayor Nikuyah Walker was available by phone but was under the impression that she could not listen.

On Monday, the City Council unanimously passed a policy that would allow absent councilors to both listen in and vote on items if certain conditions are met.

The Code of Virginia allows for remote participation in government meetings if a written policy is adopted, is enforced strictly and uniformly, a quorum of members is physically present and the remote participants are able to be heard by all in attendance.

For a councilor to participate via voice or video call, the mayor and clerk of council must be notified on or before the day of the meeting and the councilor must state the reason for not attending and say from where he or she would be calling in. This information then would be brought before the councilors who are meeting in person, and they would vote on approving remote participation.

This is permissible only for an emergency, a personal matter or a disability, and each councilor is allowed remote access for personal reasons twice a calendar year. Participating electronically due to illness does not have a limit, City Attorney John Blair said.

Participation would be approved unless it would violate the policy or provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, according to the policy.

“This policy shall apply to the entire City Council membership without regard to the identity of the member requesting remote participation or the matters that will be considered or voted on at the meeting,” it states.

The policy includes participation in closed sessions, such as the one in which Murphy was appointed. Murphy, who was an assistant city manager and has served the city for more than two decades, could be in the temporary position for a while.

Councilors on Monday indicated that they would not rush to find a replacement for former City Manager Maurice Jones. He resigned effective July 31 after the City Council declined to renew his contract, which was set to expire in December. Jones was among several high-profile officials in the region to leave in the wake of criticism of the handling of the deadly Aug. 12, 2017, Unite the Right rally.

“It’s very important that as much as possible, as much as the privacy laws allow, that this process remains open and available to the public,” resident Don Gathers said.

The city plans to have community input on the selection process, which will include interviews with residents or community leaders, surveys and community meetings. Search firm Springsted-Waters will amass a pool of applicants.