California Bills Would Extend, Expand Covid-Era Online Government Meeting Options

California Bills Would Extend, Expand Covid-Era Online Government Meeting Options

The California State Capitol building in Sacramento on April 18, 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Travis Gillmore

Travis Gillmore

8/9/2023

Updated: 12/30/2023

A series of bills currently under consideration by the California Legislature would change the structure of meetings for state and local government, agencies, and neighborhood councils by extending teleconference options—temporarily enacted by executive order in 2020 during the pandemic.
While supporters suggest the measures would improve efficiency and allow for greater participation through online teleconferencing, critics say the bills would increase government secrecy and limit access to officials by journalists and constituents.
Existing law requires that meetings of state bodies be open and public, with all people permitted to attend, as per the Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act of 1967—passed with the intention of ensuring transparency, accountability, and public access.
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order in March 2020 temporarily removed many of the restrictions imposed by the act, allowing for teleconferencing and limited in-person public engagement, but specified that the suspensions were to sunset once pandemic-related mandates were relaxed.
“All of the foregoing provisions concerning the conduct of public meetings shall apply only during the period in which state or local public health officials have imposed or recommended social distancing measures,” Mr. Newsom wrote in his order at the time.
Two bills subsequently passed extending the teleconference option, with Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio’s (D-West Covina) Assembly Bill 2449 furthering the right to meet virtually until Jan. 1, 2026, for local agencies—such as city councils—for example.
A Reparations Task Force meeting is held online in California on Sept. 23, 2021. (California Reparations Task Force/Screenshot via The Epoch Times)

A Reparations Task Force meeting is held online in California on Sept. 23, 2021. (California Reparations Task Force/Screenshot via The Epoch Times)

Now three similarly worded proposals are making their way through the Legislature.
Senate Bill 544, authored by Sen. John Laird (D-Santa Cruz) would remove, indefinitely, limitations to online government meetings, including the requirement that they provide opportunities for in-person public comment.
Existing law requires at least one member of a state body to be physically present at meeting locations, but the bill would allow a staff member to take the place of a representative.
The author argues that teleconferencing opportunities should be extended to facilitate public participation, citing what he says are benefits to the process.
“In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the widespread shutdown, the Governor signed an executive order to provide flexibility so state boards and commissions could continue to serve Californians remotely and safely,” Mr. Laird said in the bill’s legislative analysis. “Although meant to be temporary, we saw significant benefits of remote meetings such as increased participation and reduced operating costs to the state.”
Opponents say that in-person public attendance is vital to a functioning democratic society and virtual meetings lack the ability to make eye contact and personal connections with representatives, thus weakening communication.
“SB 544 jeopardizes this public access by permitting public officials to ‘phone it in’ and meet entirely telephonically if they so choose,” a group of critics, including the First Amendment Coalition, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the California Newspaper Association, wrote in opposition in the legislative analysis. “This forces the public to try to follow along with zero visual cues, guessing at speakers’ voices and addressing public officials by audio only.”
Further complicating matters is the lack of access for journalists, as many community members rely on reporting to better understand government proceedings, according to opponents.
“A primary news gathering tool is being able to approach officials, see how decision-makers engage with the public, and observe how officials interact with one another on the dais,” the groups said in opposition. “By allowing bodies to meet remotely indefinitely, SB 544 significantly hampers the ability of reporters and photographers to provide valuable information to their readers, leaving Californians less informed.”
The Los Angeles City Council holds a special meeting on Feb. 2, 2022. (Los Angeles City Council/Screenshot via The Epoch Times)

The Los Angeles City Council holds a special meeting on Feb. 2, 2022. (Los Angeles City Council/Screenshot via The Epoch Times)

A related bill, Senate Bill 411, introduced by Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-Burbank), applies to local government officials and legislative bodies and modifies the Ralph M. Brown Act—California’s open government policy enacted in 1953.
The bill aims to extend the rights granted under the governor’s emergency orders to allow local agencies to meet virtually.
As is, local governments are only permitted to temporarily use virtual meetings during times of emergency. Supporters of SB 411 say extending virtual meetings improves efficacy and public participation.
Mr. Portantino noted that Los Angeles is disproportionately affected because it is such a large geographical region—with 99 neighborhood councils and many more boards and local agencies—that makes in-person attendance difficult for many.
“The effect of this transition back to in-person meetings will be especially hard on the City of Los Angeles due to its size,” he wrote in support of the bill in a Senate Judiciary Committee analysis. “Teleconferencing has enabled members of the public to participate in multiple Neighborhood Council meetings in the same evening and has enabled greater collaboration ... creating greater equity in the process and fostering the health of our local democracy.”
Opponents argued in the committee analysis that the bill would make “drastic and permanent changes” to the Brown Act by “significantly reducing the transparency, accountability, and democratic nature of local bodies” by restricting in-person access to stakeholders and decision-makers.
“As currently drafted, SB 411 would permit government officials who serve on a range of local legislative bodies to conduct public business entirely virtually, without ever again being present at a physical location where the public and press can directly engage them,” opponents, including the same groups opposed to SB 544, wrote. “[SB 411] would fundamentally undermine one of the law’s key protections for public access and participation—the guarantee that the press and public can be physically present in the same room as those sitting on the dais and making decisions. Such physical presence has been a constant hallmark of democratic institutions.”
Protestors demonstrate as the Los Angeles City Council holds its first in-person meeting since voting in new president Paul Krekorian in the wake of a leaked audio recording in Los Angeles on Oct. 25, 2022. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Protestors demonstrate as the Los Angeles City Council holds its first in-person meeting since voting in new president Paul Krekorian in the wake of a leaked audio recording in Los Angeles on Oct. 25, 2022. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Another—and similar—proposal Senate Bill 537, introduced by Sen. Josh Becker (D-Menlo Park), suspends public access requirements for agency meetings during “proclaimed states of emergency.”
The bill would authorize local agencies to utilize teleconferencing instead of in-person meetings during such emergencies, with the author arguing that such is necessary to improve agency membership and input.
“Local multijurisdictional boards have begun to feel the impact of transitioning back to in person meetings,” Mr. Becker argued in support. “They are already having issues with membership retention and are concerned about a drop in public attendance.”
All three bills suggest removing location requirements for those participating in teleconference meetings, as some officials could be accessing the meeting from their homes or from a public location, such as a hotel room, and by publishing specific location information, security could be jeopardized.
The proposals passed the Senate and are awaiting consideration by the Assembly following the return of legislative meetings on Aug. 14.
Copy
facebooktwitterlinkedintelegram
Travis Gillmore

Travis Gillmore

Author

Travis Gillmore is an avid reader and journalism connoisseur based in California covering finance, politics, the State Capitol, and breaking news for The Epoch Times.

Author's Selected Articles
California Insider
Sign up here for our email newsletter!
©2024 California Insider All Rights Reserved. California Insider is a part of Epoch Media Group.