More changes could be coming to how the public can use county government buildings in Albemarle.
On Wednesday, the Board of Supervisors could adopt revised rules for the public’s use of the county office buildings on McIntire Road and Fifth Street Extended and their grounds.
The rules would replace the current policy on community use of county facilities, which was adopted in 1982 and has been amended multiple times.
Last year, the board changed the policy on public use of the parking lots at the McIntire Road County Office Building. More formal yellow bollards recently were installed to block the upper and middle parking lots during nights and weekends.
One major change would be opening the front portion of the front lawn of the McIntire Road building for “expressive activity.”
The proposed policy would allow people to use that area from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. and permits would not be not required.
A portion regarding the grounds of the building was not formally added to the current policy until 2012, when it was updated to include a provision stating the grounds were not open for public use, which “continues the consistent, but unwritten policy for its use, applied for over the last 25 years. The meeting agenda at the time said the purpose was “to assure the grounds cannot be claimed to be an unrestricted open public forum.”
Lance Stewart, the county’s director of facilities and environmental services, said that until recent years, the county rarely had more than one person at a time protesting on the sidewalk in front of the county building, while larger groups tended to demonstrate in front of the federal courthouse up the street.
“I’m not sure why that changed, but in recent years, the corner of Preston Avenue and McIntire Road has become a popular place,” he said, referring to the location of the County Office Building. “That’s great, but we have a policy that restricted being on the property to do that, so as long as people stayed on the sidewalk, they were within policy, but that’s very difficult to do when 200 to 300 people show up.”
“It became clear that we were either going to have to, as an organization, take a hard line about that or find some reasonable accommodations,” Stewart said.
Some protests — such as one in June 2018 in which attendees gathered on the lawn of the County Office Building-McIntire to protest Trump administration policies regarding immigration and one later that year with an inflatable chicken resembling the president — have drawn attention from the county.
An email was sent to a member of Indivisible Charlottesville from the county’s then-interim director of facilities and environmental services after the June 2018 event stating that representatives from the county and the organization had met ahead of time to discuss the policy, but that the policy was not followed.
“Based on our conversation and review of the county policy, we relied on your voluntary compliance with it in regards to community use of county facilities,” the email said. “Because of your and Indivisible Charlottesville’s non-compliance, we will now take steps to enforce county policy, which may include the right to expel the person and/or group if, after ample warnings, there is a failure to adhere to the provisions of the policy.”
After the chicken incident, the county issued a statement that said it did not authorize or participate in the event and that electricity from the county building was not used for the “giant inflatable cartoon animal.”
Timothy Zick, a professor at William & Mary’s law school, said a speech zone would be analyzed as a “time, place and manner” regulation of speech. For those regulations to be valid, he said, the government must show that it has an important interest, that the place restriction is “narrowly tailored” to serve these purposes and that speakers have alternative channels of communication.
“Courts are wary of second-guessing the government’s interests in managing public properties, and not typically very strict in terms of the ‘tailoring’ and ‘alternative channels’ portions of the analysis,” he said. “That said, depending on the facts, a challenger might be able to convince a court that the remaining space is not adequate under the First Amendment.”
If approved, landscaping and possibly small signs would be added to delineate the area permissible for public assembly from the rest of the grounds, Stewart said.
The proposed policy also would make the front steps to the building and the landing “nonpublic forums.” Board of Supervisors candidates have used those steps, which are not explicitly mentioned in the current policy, to announce their campaigns.
Rules for the county parking lots on McIntire are proposed to stay relatively the same, with only the lower parking lot open for general public use from 5 to 11:59 p.m. during the week, except during meetings of the Board of Supervisors, the Planning Commission and the School Board, and from 6 a.m. to 11:59 p.m. on weekends.
Changes also would be made to the public’s allowable use of the inside of the building.
Lane Auditorium and other rooms would be open for general access when a public body is conducting a public meeting in that room. The proposed policy states that any person attending the meeting may engage in “expressive activity” where the public meeting is held if “it does not actually disrupt the public meeting.”
The Lane Auditorium lobby, hallways, department offices, stairs, elevators and bathrooms all would be open for “selective access,” but would be considered “nonpublic forums.”
During an emergency School Board meeting in 2018, six people were arrested, some of whom had been holding a “people’s meeting” in the Lane Auditorium lobby while the meeting was going on. The lobby is not explicitly mentioned in the current policy.
Also included in the proposed policy are appendices titled “The First Amendment Rights of Speakers at Public Meetings” and “Guidance on Whether Particular Speech or Behavior at a Public Meeting is Disruptive.”
The board on Wednesday also will hold a public hearing on a proposal to change the county code to expressly state that the county executive, or their designee, is the “person in charge” in disorderly-conduct situations and the “person lawfully in charge of the property” in trespass situations.