As the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors prepares to hold three public hearings Wednesday night, citizens for the first time will be able to reserve their spot in advance using an online form.

“Instead of requiring people to come to the County Office Building and sign up several hours before a public hearing, they are able to sign up remotely and are no longer required to spend that time waiting around for the public hearing to begin,” said Albemarle spokeswoman Lee Catlin
 
Would-be speakers can begin signing up 24 hours prior to the beginning of the meeting. Online registration ends at 3 p.m., three hours before the meeting starts.
 
Catlin said the experiment is the latest attempt to help make county government more accessible using the Internet.
 
“This is actually a continuation of introducing technology options into board meetings starting with podcasting several years ago, then moving to live audio-streaming several months ago,” Catlin said.
 
Catlin said that people would continue to have the opportunity to sign up in person using pen and paper.
 
When the public hearing is opened, board Chairwoman Ann H. Mallek will alternate between the online sign-up sheet and the physical one in order to ensure fairness.
 
“I don’t want people who register in advance to push out people who turn up in person, but perhaps alternating the online and in-person signup will work,” Mallek said.
 
Other supervisors also have expressed their support for the new option.
 
“I think it’s an excellent process enhancement,” said Supervisor Dennis S. Rooker. “It will eliminate the need for citizens to come to hearings hours before the meeting to sign up to speak when we have a topic for which significant public input is expected.”
 
“I believe it will be convenient and appreciated by many and I am all for it,” said Supervisor Duane E. Snow.
 
One frequent speaker at public hearings said he supports the experiment but remains cautious.
 
“We hope this experiment works well for the general public and is not abused by special-interest groups,” said Neil Williamson of the Free Enterprise Forum. “If it places regular citizens, who may or may not know of the online system, as second class citizens in the back of the line behind those organizations who may have created an email campaign to fill all of the speaking 
spots available, then it is a failure.”
 
Catlin said her staff has weighed the pros and con of allowing online sign-ups.
 
“There is the potential for people signing up online and then not showing up. We actually already have that possibility now with people signing up in advance and then leaving the meeting before their turn,” Catlin said. “If they don’t show up, we will simply skip them and go on down the list to the next person.”
 
The public hearings scheduled for this week include amending an ordinance to disallow open burning of trash and special-use permit hearings for two cell phone towers.
 
A fourth public hearing — to consider a special-use permit to allow for Castle Hill Cidery to hold events with as many as 3,000 attendees — has been postponed until January.
 
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