Public access expanded during the pandemic. Why do some cities want to take it away – The San Diego Union-Tribune


Cities across San Diego County found creative ways to maintain and even broaden public access and government participation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, some of them — Carlsbad, Chula Vista and Lemon Grove — are taking it away.

State lawmakers are trying to keep that from happening.

A collection of bills being considered by the Legislature would preserve teleconferencing, Zoom, Facebook Live, YouTube and other virtual methods used during the year-long shutdown that allowed an often disenfranchised population to participate in local government meetings.

Single parents, disabled residents, homebound seniors and others were able, perhaps for the first time, to hear and see in real time the decisions being made by their elected officials.

The move to governing online stems from an executive order Gov. Gavin Newsom issued March 12, 2020, that allowed local legislative bodies to hold public meetings by teleconferencing because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it required the meetings to be “accessible telephonically or otherwise electronically to all members of the public.” The order allowed agencies to waive a requirement of the Ralph M. Brown Act that meetings be held in person.

The transition from in-person to virtual was shaky at first and had its drawbacks. The use of an app such as Zoom on a computer or smartphone requires an understanding of technology that not everyone has, especially older people more likely to comment on civic affairs. Often, callers fumbled with the mute button or lost their place in line. Others struggled with feedback, background noise or the occasional child or pet who interrupted.

Newsom’s executive order was due to expire on June 15, the day the statewide shutdown ended, but the governor announced an extension through Sept. 30, saying state and local agencies can continue to conduct virtual public meetings as needed and allow the public to observe — and address — meetings by phone or internet.

But some communities have discontinued the more robust online options. And that is worrisome to those who advocate for broad public access.

“Active participation in government is the backbone of a strong democracy,” said David Loy, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial counties. “Public policy and state law should do everything possible to encourage, support and facilitate active and engaged civic participation through attendance at public meetings.”

Loy said jurisdictions must do all they can to increase access to meetings and remove barriers that hinder participation. He said their top priority should be transparency and accountability “to the highest degree possible.”

That’s a sentiment shared by Jose Preciado, a convener with the South Bay Forum, which advocates with South County school and water districts to help create better opportunities for residents.

“I think that local governments and maybe the state needs to look at how we keep some aspects of this because it does create access, it does create opportunities for citizens to provide input to specific items,” he said

Preciado suggested municipalities consider offering virtual options when items of large community interest come around.

Meanwhile, a handful of state bills — Assembly Bills 703, 361 and 339 — are working their way through the Legislature and, if passed, would require or make it an option for cities and counties to continue offering virtual access for the public.

AB 703 would improve and expand public access to meetings by allowing broader access through teleconferencing.

AB 361 states that while maintaining transparency and public access, local agencies would be able to meet remotely during a declared state of emergency or a declared local emergency.

AB 339 requires city councils and county supervisors to make it possible for members of the public to attend meetings via a two-way telephonic option or a two-way internet-based service option; to continue to provide video streaming; and to permit in-person comment.

The League of California Cities was among several groups that oppose AB 339, contending it “will purposefully add significant unfunded mandates on city councils and boards of supervisors.” It says that the bill fails to provide flexibility to local governments to manage their own affairs.

Loy said AB 339 is a good start, though it is limited to city councils and county boards that oversee populations of 250,000 and more.

The city of San Diego’s pre-pandemic meetings were shown online and on cable TV, but no online participation was allowed. Now, people can testify during a public hearing (or during non-agenda public comment) over Zoom from home. It has not been decided whether that will continue when in-person meetings resume.

Lemon Grove has gone back to in-person council meetings, but has discontinued the option for the public to join meetings via a Zoom link or by phone. City Manager Lydia Romero said the city cannot do both a Zoom meeting and hold an in-person City Council meeting because of logistics and staffing.

El Cajon has never allowed public comment through phone calls. The city had been accepting written online comments during meetings when they were held remotely but now accepts online comments only before a meeting.

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors’ pre-pandemic meetings were not truly virtual as they are now as meetings were carried online and on social media with an opportunity to comment electronically, according to county spokesman Michael Workman.

The version the county uses now is an adaptation of that, with an added ability to allow call-in comments. Workman said the county plans to review the process shortly and develop a longer-term strategy to increase engagement.

In North County, the Oceanside City Council returned to in-person public meetings in June, and opted to continue streaming the meetings on Zoom and allow comments via Zoom, options added during the pandemic.

The Carlsbad City Council returned to in-person meetings this month, but discontinued the use of Zoom.

“The reason we are not allowing phone-in comments at in-person meetings is because we don’t have the equipment as part of our current AV system in the City Council chamber,” said Kristina Ray, the city’s communication and engagement director. “It would also take more staff to manage two types of commenting processes.”

Vista’s City Council resumed in-person meetings at the end of May, but the Zoom format that allowed people to “raise their hand” and comment was discontinued.

Escondido’s City Council broadened the public’s ability to comment during the pandemic, having the city clerk read aloud email comments as each agenda item was taken up. Pre-pandemic, comments were not read aloud. But when the council resumed meeting in person in May, it went back to its pre-COVID comment policy. An angry public pushed back.

“I do think (public) engagement has gone up” because of the email option, Councilmember Consuelo Martinez said at the May 26 meeting, “and we’ve seen that with some of the statistics that our city manager has given us throughout the year since COVID.” She suggested a hybrid policy of in-person comments and emailed comments read into the minutes to continue through 2021. The council approved the hybrid policy unanimously.

In South County, most cities plan to return to more traditional ways of conducting business, ditching virtual accommodations, such as Zoom, but resuming live streams.

Chula Vista, for example, began welcoming the public back for in-person council meetings in late April and offered an option where council members, staff and the public could participate either from council chambers or virtually. The latter ended with their July 13 meeting, however.

The decision comes down to “astronomical” costs in upgrades, said Mayor Mary Casillas Salas.

“We would have to buy a whole new video and sound system and that figure is in the millions,” she said. “It’s like, do you need to have a better animal shelter or a state-of-the-art camera system? Those are tough choices to make on where you put those funds that will do the most benefit.”

Similarly, National City will discontinue virtual meetings upon returning from recess next month, but continue live streams on its city website.

Imperial Beach, which has taken a slower reopening approach and has not yet allowed the public to return for in-person meetings, could continue offering teleconference options through the end of the year or “until it becomes less of a health issue,” said City Manager Andy Hall.

The option could easily stay indefinitely, he added, because “we’ve got all the equipment now and I don’t think it’s costing us anything, and staff has gotten quite used to it.”

The ACLU’s Loy said the provisions of Newsom’s executive order should be considered for permanent legislation.

“Even if not for COVID-19 (protocols), we should preserve these opportunities for participation for access,” he said.

Laura Groch contributed to this report.