According to the Ralph M. Brown Act, the California law that dictates how the public accesses government meetings, anyone could show up at the home of an elected official who was attending a meeting remotely. After all, the law mandates that the address where officials take the meeting must be posted online.
Attorney Mike Maurer says these rules have always felt outdated, but it wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic that they became problematic. Now, the state has the chance to change the rules and to decide the future of public debate.
In March 2020 in response to the pandemic, Gov. Gavin Newsom suspended parts of the Brown Act, including the requirement to post and offer public access to a remote member’s location, to allow public meetings to be held virtually and safely. It’s not clear yet when the suspension will expire, but Susan Kennedy, communications director for state Assemblymember and Speaker pro Tempore Kevin Mullin, said it won’t align with the June 15 near-total reopening of the state and boards will get ample notice.
In the meantime, the California Legislature has been contemplating the future of the law, considering changes that range from eliminating the need for an emergency declaration to host virtual meetings to getting rid of the requirement for in-person meetings and public posting of addresses in general.
Regardless of the state’s decision, many Coastside board members said they plan to make accommodations for virtual participants from now on and are thinking about how to further expand access. That’s because nearly every board saw increased attendance at meetings, something elected officials say they would like to preserve going forward.
In some ways, online meeting platforms made things easier, local board members and participants said. People could Zoom from anywhere — at home, their cars, while cooking or taking care of kids. Suddenly, Bay Area consultants didn't have to drive an hour to get to the Coastside, and elected officials could make not just their meetings, but even others that week.
El Granada resident Chris Johnson, who sits on the Coastside Design Review Committee, said his board, which often looks at new house designs, found working virtually was easier to visualize design changes and ideas. And the Half Moon Bay City Council was no less able to work efficiently through its jam-packed agendas, Communications Director Jessica Blair said.
Board members overwhelmingly said more people attended their meetings, making for a richer and more inclusive discussion. While initial technology and access barriers made participating virtually more difficult for some Coastsiders, as everyone adjusted to the new procedures, more and more people began to come and speak.
“There is more accessibility,” La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District Board Member Monica Resendiz said. “We went from in-person meetings, where there might be five to six people, to a board meeting where there’s 20-plus people. Parents and community members even logged on.”
County Supervisor Don Horsley said he even found the virtual space allowed more independent thinking by board members, who weren’t influenced as much by one another’s presence, making groupthink less likely.
“When you’re there and there’s all five of you, you read the body language of people,” Horsley said. “You can’t do that online.”
But according to many longtime Coastsiders, quantity did not necessarily make up for quality. Video conferencing made it seem as though members of the public were just characters on a screen. There was no way to tell whether off-camera participants were cooking dinner or on their phones, half-heartedly listening to that day’s agenda. Muting and unmuting made for constantly stilted and interrupted conversation. Gone was the ability to mingle around the room, munch on a baked good and introduce yourself to a decisionmaker before the start of a meeting. And perhaps most importantly, it became more difficult for members of the public to make an emotional appeal on the issues they cared most about.
With meetings now online, the effect of a big crowd arriving together to advocate for or against a proposal was all but lost. Hours of public comment, even virtually, can have an impact on decision makers. But nothing is quite like a crowd of local teachers all in matching red shirts demanding a raise or a gaggle of kids packed into a tiny upstairs room pleading for a local pump track to practice mountain biking.
For some, there’s just no replacement for in-person meetings. It wasn’t until a local cadre of Montarans hiked two hours to the top of Montara Mountain for a meeting last fall that they were able to stop construction on a San Francisco Public Utilities District project atop the peak.
Horsley said the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors wasn’t planning on investing $20 million to save Seton Medical Center in Daly City from closure due to bankruptcy last spring before the start of the pandemic. But after dozens of people — from nurses to city officials to religious leaders — stood up and spoke, often with raw emotion, on behalf of the critical role the hospital plays, the board voted 4-1 to approve the purchase. Just months later, the hospital would open a dedicated COVID-19 wing and even accept patients from San Quentin State Prison in the fight against the pandemic.
“You could have (meetings) virtually, but it will never be the same,” Cabrillo Unified School District Board President Lizet Cortes said. “It has never been the same.”
What does the future look like for public meetings once the pandemic subsides?
California Assemblymembers have been making the push for permanent change to the Brown Act with a set of three bills that could make teleconferencing a more common feature for post-pandemic board meetings.
AB 703 allows for virtual meetings indefinitely and removes requirements for public attendance at physical locations, while AB 361 would allow for virtual meetings during declared emergencies only, much like the COVID-19 pandemic. AB 339 would be the most drastic change, requiring public boards to provide virtual access to meetings for the public and adding new accessibility provisions, including live translation services. But this requirement would only hold over jurisdictions containing at least 250,000 people, so not every Coastside board would qualify. Plus, these laws wouldn’t go into effect until next year, at the earliest. In the interim, it may be up to local leaders to pursue and maintain some kind of hybrid model.
Local board members said that no matter the law, they’re getting ready now to accommodate virtual participants for in-person meetings in the future. Most plan to allow for virtual participation during in-person meetings to accommodate members of the public or board members who can’t make it in person, and they want to make translation services a permanent feature if they aren’t already.
But it takes more than just a Zoom link, live translation service or closed captioning to make public meetings truly accessible and representative. No two people face the same barriers, not just to accessing meetings, but to feeling welcome to attend and share their perspective.
Ligia Andrade Zúñiga, vice president of the Center for Independence of Individuals with Disabilities Board of Directors in San Mateo, said cultural background, community context and ability all play a role in what’s accessible and what isn’t. And for many who don’t face these barriers, it took a global pandemic to wake up to these challenges and want to fix them.
“I don’t think resources are a barrier,” Zúñiga said. “I think it’s just an excuse. There’s always a way. We have to think outside of what we think is ‘normal.’”
Despite the majority-Latino student population in the South Coast district, most of the parents who log on to LHPUSD board meetings are white and speak English, Resendiz said, and she’s the only bilingual member on the board. She’s looking into offering occasional meetings at local ranches to bring in new voices and even considering launching a workshop to teach South Coast parents and other community members how to use Zoom, to get them technology and to introduce them to board meeting procedures so they can be more effective advocates for their kids.
To Kassi Talbot, who is a local teacher, member of the Pescadero Municipal Advisory Council and often translates LHPUSD meetings among other roles in the South Coast community, there’s no community too small or too rural to offer translation or other accessibility services to people who need them.
“If you’re going to claim that you have a space that represents the people, then those demographics and languages need to reflect itself in those public spaces,” Talbot said.