Anaheim, California 2020-09-28 16:45:38 –
Even with months to work out the bugs, for some Orange County local governments, public meetings in the age of COVID-19 have meant dropped calls, mute button fails or online viewers looking at a black screen.
But that’s not the case in plenty of communities, where city councils, school boards and their staffs have figured out new and different ways to include their constituents that may endure even after face-to-face meetings resume – and some are talking about reopening meetings to residents as soon as next month.
Early on, the shift was sudden. When the virus’s spread in March shuttered businesses and public agencies statewide, “we had a week to pull something together,” Irvine City Clerk Molly Perry said.
Local officials still had public business to conduct, while also following laws requiring that citizens be able to observe and participate in their government.
Even critics acknowledge adapting to the new reality has been a struggle. Westminster resident Terry Rains, who offers regular feedback to elected city and school leaders, gives credit to the city clerk.
“It’s like every meeting there’s a new technical challenge that she has to figure out.”
Six months on, with most public meeting venues still closed, some agencies have made more progress than others.
“Places that wanted to do better learned how to do better, and places that didn’t want to do better and are adverse to transparency took advantage of that,” said Kelly Aviles, an open government attorney with an office in La Verne.
Learning to adapt
Some cities, including Costa Mesa and Mission Viejo, moved meetings to online platforms such as Zoom, allowing elected officials to log in from home and residents to watch from their computer or phone. The county Board of Supervisors and some other agencies continued to meet in person with social distancing, masks and other precautions.
The head scratcher for some was how to take public comments when a pandemic prevents public gatherings. The answer? For some, it was shifting the emphasis to digital communication, such as email and e-comment features on their website; for others, old-fashioned phone calls let residents air their opinions during meetings.
It seems no mode of communication has been problem-free, and there are those officials and residents who say an important part of democracy feels missing when they can’t see or hear each other in real time.
Mission Viejo Mayor Brian Goodell said some residents have complained when the clerk didn’t get their emailed comments by the pre-meeting cutoff time, and when the council also took callers during discussion on a big project, a few people used the occasion to slip their sentiments in twice – orally and by email that was read into the record.
Rains said the Westminster School District board has an audio feed but no video, so residents can’t see which board member is speaking or watch staff presentations. A number of other boards and councils in the county also only offer audio for those who want to follow the meeting remotely. Even before the pandemic it was an option several without video systems in their meeting rooms relied on for recording and posting their meetings.
“A school district, at a time right now when everything is up in the air (regarding schools reopening), they should be the most transparent of any agency,” Rains said.
In response to an interview request, district spokesman Van Dam wrote in an email that the district’s legal counsel deems it in compliance with the state’s open meetings law as well as a pandemic-related order on public meetings from Gov. Gavin Newsom.
“WSD is committed to public accessibility, transparency and safety during our board meetings,” Dam wrote.
Aviles, the attorney, and others have criticized Anaheim for having council members call into meetings and taking residents’ input only via emails that are given to the council and published online, but not read aloud.
Anaheim spokesman Mike Lyster said the city has been cautious because some meetings on video platforms have been interrupted with unwanted or inappropriate content.
“There’s no perfect solution that we’ve seen out there, we’re all struggling with a difficult challenge of the pandemic and holding public meetings,” he said. “Anyone’s voice who wants to be heard before our City Council, there’s opportunity to be heard.”
The county has continued to allow people to comment in person, but limits how many can be in the building at a time and has them comment from a windowed room that looks onto the board chambers. Board Clerk Robin Stieler set up a phone line so people without internet access to view the meeting can call in and listen.
After hearing from residents whose health issues prevented them from attending, County Counsel Leon Page began reading their written comments aloud to the board, trying to express the emotion they might have conveyed in person.
“Hopefully they have a sense that their contribution matters, they are important and their words are being heard by their elected officials,” Page said.
Still, some officials and residents said they have more meaningful interactions in person, or at least when they can see each other rather than communicating by phone or email.
Addressing elected representatives face-to-face, “you have eye contact, you have different gestures you can make,” said Rains, the Westminster activist.
“It’s the connecting, that you want to see your local officials and watch them make decisions and be a part of that decision, and being there in person is meaningful,” said Perry, the Irvine city clerk. “I think that’s just part of our democracy.”
Ready to reopen?
The challenges of maintaining the public’s access while shifting away from in-person meetings have yielded some silver linings.
Rains worried that people may feel left out of meetings, but officials reported hearing from more residents or different ones than typically showed up pre-pandemic.
Perry said since the city of Irvine began promoting it, use of the e-comment option has soared: residents submitted more than 2,200 e-comments between late March and mid-August, compared with about 150 in the same period last year.
And in Costa Mesa, Mayor Katrina Foley said the city began holding online townhalls, including the first bilingual one. About 28 residents called in with questions and comments, more than half of whom opted to speak Spanish.
“I feel like we’ve done a lot more community engagement and we’ve utilized different tools than we’ve had in the past to engage the community, and so more people are getting involved,” she said.
Whenever they reopen City Hall, Foley said, “the challenge will be not to lose these technological tools that could supplement those in-person meetings.”
Some officials are talking about reopening meetings soon to the public in some fashion, with safety protocols.
Mission Viejo’s Goodell said residents have been asking to come back, and the city is working on a plan that would include limited attendance, one-way aisles, face coverings and lots of sanitizing. His council may open the chambers as soon as its Oct. 13 meeting.
Also next month, Irvine officials will discuss how the public could be welcomed back safely, Mayor Christina Shea said, adding, “I think direct access is very important.”
Irvine might allow residents into the spacious lobby and conference area next to the council chambers; they could give their comments at a kiosk with a camera with the council watching on a screen in the next room.
While citizen participation is a cherished part of American democracy, UC Irvine epidemiologist Andrew Noymer said deciding whether to meet in person “is really tricky.”
Local officials need to consider a number of factors, Noymer said: how many people would be allowed inside? How good is the building’s ventilation system? How would officials handle people who refuse to wear a mask?
While Orange County’s COVID-19 statistics have continued to improve, and some experts might think he’s being overly conservative, Noymer said, “I do expect a second wave and I do expect things to get worse before we come out of the tunnel on the other side.”
Noymer said he’d personally stick to video meetings, but for those who decide to go ahead, provisions like what Irvine and Mission Viejo are considering sound reasonable. He noted that even before the pandemic a person could have caught the flu at a public meeting.
“There’s no zero risk.”