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Legal groups send letter to Staunton City Council regarding remote participation in meetings

Published: May. 5, 2021 at 6:23 PM EDT
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STAUNTON, Va. (WHSV) - Staunton City Council voted 4-3 to repeal an emergency ordinance last month, and that move also ended the public’s ability to call in to participate in council meetings.

That decision has led to some pushback from community members, and it has also caught the attention of some advocacy groups in the state. Some groups recently sent a letter to the mayor and city council, asking them to revisit their decision to eliminate remote participation in city council meetings.

In a joint effort, the American Civil Liberties Union, the disAbility Law Center and the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection wrote to the city council to share their concerns about this decision and how it may affect those with disabilities.

“People with disabilities have a substantially greater risk of deaths or serious illness if they contract COVID, and we certainly aren’t finished with the pandemic,” Executive Director for the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection Mary McCord said.

The letter cited the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, which say governments must provide modifications as needed so people with disabilities can fully participate in government programs.

“The city was providing that with the call-in option, and by cutting that off, there are people whose rights will then be cut off,” McCord said.

But Staunton Mayor Andrea Oakes said the council is already planning to discuss all council procedures at a meeting later in May, including the public’s ability to call in.

“This is an issue we certainly have not overlooked or forgotten, it’s just a matter of us having it on the agenda, having the conversation about it,” Oakes said.

With remote participation ending, there were also concerns regarding the First Amendment. The letter states, “one City Council member recently suggested that the elimination of telephonic participation was based on a constitutionally impermissible desire to silence dissenting views.”

But Mayor Oakes said that is not true.

“We want to hear from everyone. The good, the bad, the ugly. We want to hear the negative comments, we want to hear the positive comments, we keep that door open for everyone,” Oakes said. “That’s their First Amendment right, and we certainly respect the First Amendment.”

McCord said the letter was not meant to be threatening but to bring attention to the issue and to offer their advice if needed.

“This is trying to call their attention to, this is a serious issue, and the pandemic isn’t over and people are being shut out of their rights and not accommodated under the ADA,” McCord said.

Click here to read the full letter to Staunton City Council.

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