Citizens who long for the good old days when you could exercise your First Amendment Right to complain and deliver grievances to your elected representatives in person, will have to wait at least another month, likely much longer.
Both the Morro Bay City Council and Los Osos Community Services District Board of Directors passed Resolutions last week extending their use of online meetings through the end of October.
The resolutions were passed in response to the recently enacted Assembly Bill 361, which amended the Brown Act, California’s open meetings law. AB 361, passed Sept. 17 allows for Brown Act bodies to hold public meetings online during times of declared states-of-emergency, such as the current Coronavirus Pandemic, which has been a declared state-of-emergency since March 2020, with no end in sight.
“The Ralph M. Brown Act requires, with specified exceptions,” reads the bill, “that all meetings of a legislative body of a local agency, as those terms are defined, be open and public and that all persons be permitted to attend and participate.”
The Brown Act also has several requirements dealing with public notice and posting of agendas and accessibility of the public to attend. “The act allows for meetings to occur via teleconferencing,” the Bill reads, “subject to certain requirements, particularly that the legislative body notice each teleconference location of each member that will be participating in the public meeting, that each teleconference location be accessible to the public, that members of the public be allowed to address the legislative body at each teleconference location, that the legislative body post an agenda at each teleconference location, and that at least a quorum of the legislative body participate from locations within the boundaries of the local agency’s jurisdiction.”
Governor Gavin Newsom with Executive Order No. N-29-20 suspended the Brown Act’s requirements for teleconferencing during the pandemic, “provided that notice and accessibility requirements are met, the public members are allowed to observe and address the legislative body at the meeting, and that a legislative body of a local agency has a procedure for receiving and swiftly resolving requests for reasonable accommodation for individuals with disabilities, as specified.”
AB 361 sets a deadline of Jan. 1, 2024 for these Brown Act workarounds to end.
Until then, government bodies can use teleconferencing like Zoom, which most local agencies have been using during the pandemic.
The County Health Department, as well as the State Department of Public Health, each have authority in this matter, “…when state or local health officials have imposed or recommended measures to promote social distancing, during a proclaimed state of emergency held for the purpose of determining, by majority vote, whether meeting in person would present imminent risks to the health or safety of attendees, and during a proclaimed state of emergency when the legislative body has determined that meeting in person would present imminent risks to the health or safety of attendees, as provided.”
What that means is so long as the County Health Department is calling for these measures to try and stop the spread of the virus, the agencies can continue to meet online. But they have to pass a new Resolution every 30 days if they want to continue that way.
“Unfortunately,” LOCSD General Manager Ron Munds told Estero Bay News, “per the law we have to pass a Resolution each month while the State emergency is in place, so this will be an ongoing agenda item until we feel it’s safe to resume live meetings.”
LOSCD was to hold a special meeting Sept. 29 to address the Zoom Resolution, and continue to meet online. Morro Bay City Council passed a similar Resolution at its Sept. 28 meeting. Both will have to pass another Resolution in October, and November, December and so on…
Asked if they had to wait for the State to lift the emergency declaration, or if the County Health Department could give them a go-ahead earlier, should county COVID-19 numbers fall into a sufficiently safer level, Munds said, “County Health hasn’t weighed in on live versus remote meetings but does have a mask mandate for indoor gatherings and meetings, so if we want to start live meetings before the termination of the State emergency, it will be up to us unless things change, which we know they can. Very confusing and everything seems to be a moving target at this point.”
AB 361 does a couple of other interesting things, like requiring a legislative body to “take no further action on agenda items when there is a disruption, which prevents the public agency from broadcasting the meeting, or in the event of a disruption within the local agency’s control which prevents members of the public from offering public comments, until public access is restored.” So if the computer crashes, the meeting’s over.
And, “This bill would prohibit the legislative body from requiring public comments to be submitted in advance of the meeting and would specify that the legislative body must provide an opportunity for the public to address the legislative body and offer comment in real time.”
Morro Bay residents have been making good use of emailing in comments prior to meetings, with the City Clerk posting those to the City’s email subscriber list, as well as the City website. But comments that come in late are sometimes not included prior to meetings, but released after the fact and included in the public record.
Morro Bay’s Zoom meetings are broadcast on cable TV (Charter Ch. 20 in Morro Bay only), and residents can participate. According to City Clerk Dana Swanson the Zoom meetings “are available on Channel 20 if you have Charter, or via web-stream [cal-span.org/unipage/index.php?site=slo-span&channel=8] or, of course, on Zoom. Those watching on Channel 20 can call in for public comment.”
She added: Public comment for telephone attendees: 1-408-638-0968 or 1-669-900 6833 or 1-346-248 7799; Webinar ID: 827 2274 7698; Password: 135692; Press *9 to “raise hand” for public comment.
The LOCSD’s meetings are recorded by the agency and then sent to AGP to upload onto the website (see: www.losososcsd.org).
Munds said the public could watch and take part in their meetings on Zoom, Facebook or streaming on SLO Span. They only recently discontinued their contract to broadcast meetings on cable TV, Munds said, “because of the cost.”
In some regards, SLO-Span is a better access route for a lot of local agencies, because one can only get meetings for their local agency on cable, with County meetings on Charter Ch. 21, all meetings are available to watch on the website and there’s a large archive of past meetings available too, in case readers missed the chance to exercise their Right to Complain.