Two barred from Town Council meeting

Published 5:32 pm Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Two Claremont women say they were barred from attending a special called Town Council meeting March 20 for not wearing face masks.

Donna Skinner says she and Dianna Strickland both have medical conditions that prevent them from wearing masks, and were wearing face shields instead when Mayor George Edwards and Councilman Dale Perkinson would not let them inside Claremont’s Town Center.

“They were physically blocking the door with their arms crossed,” Skinner said.

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The two women have been working with Planning Commission Chairman Howell Godfrey to distribute a petition calling for the town to relinquish its charter and consolidate with the county. Were that to happen, Claremont would cease to have its own separate municipal government. Sixty-nine had signed the version as of March 26.

Skinner sees the council’s recent mask mandate — issued nearly a year after Gov. Ralph Northam declared COVID-19 a public health emergency — as retaliation and a deliberate attempt to keep her and Strickland out.

“They haven’t been wearing masks either until February,” Skinner said. “They didn’t start enforcing anything regarding COVID until February.”

Strickland says she’s hired an attorney in preparation to take the matter to court. Godfrey — who was wearing a mask — was allowed to attend the meeting.

Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act mandates all state- and municipal-level government meetings and records be open to the public unless an exemption is properly invoked. According to Alan Gernhardt, executive director of Virginia’s Freedom of Information Advisory Council, FOIA does not specifically address the wearing of masks, social distancing guidelines or other health-related issues that have come to light since COVID-19, so mask mandates at town council meetings “would not be a FOIA violation.”

Still, he recommends public bodies “try to provide alternatives for someone who has a medical condition that prevents her from wearing a mask, if reasonable alternatives are available — whether that’s allowing a face shield in lieu of a mask, allowing public comment using remote participation technology or some other option.”

“While I believe governments can make a rule under emergency conditions that require wearing a mask, I also think those rules should be implemented with alternatives so that people are not unreasonably kept from observing meetings of a public body,” added Megan Rhyne, director of the nonprofit Virginia Coalition for Open Government. “If the council does not think a face shield is a reasonable alternative, I would hope they would then provide other means for a citizen to participate/observe the meeting in some other way, and I would hope that however they choose to enforce the rule, that they do so without regard to who a person is or what a person may be expected to say during a public comment period.”

The March 20 meeting concerned Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act, which the petition claims the town hasn’t been enforcing. The state law requires counties, cities and towns to ensure construction projects within their incorporated limits comply with the Act’s protections for the bay and its tributaries.

Specifically, the council voted to send a written request to Surry’s Board of Supervisors asking for a memorandum of understanding that would deed the responsibility of Bay Act enforcement to the county. Previously, on Jan. 20, the town had awarded a contract to Bowman Consulting to review erosion and sediment control plans for Bay Act compliance.

Last year, town officials received a preliminary report of the findings state Department of Environmental Quality inspectors made June 15 through Nov. 29, 2020, which concluded “the Bay Act is not being implemented within the Town of Claremont, and has not been for some time.” The DEQ issued its final compliance review report Feb. 12, giving the town until Feb. 15, 2022 to address “nine recommended conditions regarding certain aspects of the Town’s Bay Act program implementation.”

Those recommendations include numerous changes to the wording of the town’s Chesapeake Bay ordinance to make it compliant with the current wording of the Bay Act, updates to the town’s 2009 Chesapeake Bay Preservation Area map and a reminder that the 40 septic systems in town located within Chesapeake Bay preservation areas must be pumped out every five years.

“DEQ would like the town to add new procedures to our zoning application process and we will be adopting some new ordinances pertaining to Chesapeake Bay regulations,” Edwards posted to the town’s Facebook page March 5. “There are NO violations or fines. I’d like to thank Chad Heath for his help and dedication in this matter. This problem has been solved.”

Neither the preliminary report nor the final one made any statement declaring the town officially out of compliance with the Bay Act. According to DEQ spokesman Gregory Bilyeu, DEQ’s review process allows the town an opportunity to review the findings “prior to any determination of compliance.”

The mayor was unable to be reached for comment by press time for comments on the March 20 incident with Skinner and Strickland.

Surry County Administrator Melissa Rollins did not respond by press time as to whether the county had received the town’s MOU request or when the matter would go before Surry’s Board of Supervisors.