A contentious meeting of the Board of Supervisors over COVID restrictions in November 2021. Image from meeting livestream
A combination of angry citizens at public hearings and the continued live-streaming of many local government meetings has convinced some legislators that it’s time to rethink how the public’s business is conducted at the state and local level.
It was nearly a year ago last August when a San Diego County Board of Supervisors live meeting turned ugly. There were more than 100 speakers, some of them shouting profanities and threatening violence over planned COVID-19 restrictions.
Prior to this, when meetings in person were considered unsafe because of the pandemic, local legislative bodies were allowed to hold public meetings by teleconferencing by order of Gov. Gavin Newsom. The meetings had 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.
Fast forward to an Assembly bill now working its way through the state Legislature. The bill, AB 2449, was prompted, in part, by concerns over the safety of government officials as well as a growing realization that teleconferencing of government meetings may well be the future of how the public work of governing will be done.
“This is in hindsight of instances of harassment and danger for certain representatives from posting their physical location and making that accessible,” said Daniel Folwarkow, legislative director for the bill’s author, Assemblymember Blanca E. Rubio. “In the 21st century we have better means to allow access while simultaneously providing a degree of flexibility.
Supporters say the bill is an effort to “modernize” the state’s open meetings law to reflect what’s happening in California.
However, there are elements of the bill that advocates for transparency in government oppose. They feel it is a fundamental change to the key piece of law that makes sure the public’s business is transparent: the Brown Act.
The act applies to all of California’s legislative bodies from water districts to the state Assembly. It guarantees in the state constitution the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings of local officials. It was passed back in 1953 because of concerns over secret meetings that the public wasn’t told about.
The goal of AB 2449, say its supporters, is to encourage greater participation during remote public meetings. The bill’s sponsors believe it will do just this by building on the temporary changes that were made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. At that time government entities in California could hold remote meetings without having to post an agenda in a physical location or make remote meeting sites accessible to the public due to Newsom’s state of emergency.
The Brown Act itself has allowed remote meetings for years, but requires several requirements outside of a declared state of emergency, like letting the public know where the official is teleconferencing from.
AB 2449 would change this, allowing legislative bodies to broadcast their meetings remotely from private locations not identified or accessible to the public at any time without a good reason to do so.
Bill supporters contend that certain members of local government should not have to disclose their home addresses.
With only remote access, the opportunity to ask questions to members on or near the dais, as is customary, is prevented, say open government advocates who believe that the bill, if enacted as written now, would fundamentally alter the Brown Act. The ability of journalists and citizens to access their leaders could well be limited by the proposed changes.
A coalition of advocacy groups — Californians Aware, the ACLU, the Leadership Counsel for Justice & Accountability and the First Amendment Coalition — are collectively opposing this element of the bill, saying it would be removing what has been a “longstanding democratic protection in California, requiring the lawmakers to directly face the public.”
Critics say the bill as written would allow an elected official to attend a meeting by teleconferencing while sitting in home or an office. Perhaps that was an excuse during the pandemic, but not now they say. The public’s right to “meaningful access” shouldn’t be limited to accommodate public officials who don’t want to go to the meetings.
Folwarkow from Rubio’s office said they have been working with the coalition and have come up with guardrails to “ensure transparency” by requiring officials disclose at the beginning that they will be remote and join with both video and audio. An official must also disclose if anyone is with them and what is “their general relationship with the member of the body.”
The four-group coalition suggested pulling this element out of the bill for now because it will be “making substantial changes to the laws that have ensured democracy at the local government level for generations.” Opposing the changes suggested by the coalition is the League of California Cities.
Legislative Affairs Lobbyist Johnnie Piña said the current Brown Act rules requiring officials to tell the public where officials are while teleconferencing and allowing the public to participate in those meetings from the same place is risky business. “It poses serious public safety concerns and discourages remote meetings,” he said.
AB 2449 seeks to remove this requirement first established in the Brown Act, but Piña said recent amendments to the bill undermine its overall usefulness, such as limiting participation in remote meetings for more than three consecutive months. “We believe the amendments are overly complicated and onerous, making it far less likely that cities will opt-in to this new section of the Brown Act,” he said.
It appears there is little opposition to other suggested changes, such as requiring members to be on camera, or providing phone access to those who don’t have a good internet connection. In the event of a disruption that prevents the legislative body from broadcasting the meeting to the public or allowing members of the public to offer comments, then no further actions can take place with items on the meeting agenda.
The legislation adds that there is no requirement for public comment requests be submitted before the meeting and the public must have an opportunity to speak.
JW August is a San Diego-based broadcast and digital journalist. August has reported on sex and labor trafficking for twenty years.