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Newsom Approves California Bill Allowing Virtual Government Meetings

Newsom Approves California Bill Allowing Virtual Government Meetings

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference after meeting with students at James Denman Middle School in San Francisco on Oct. 1, 2021. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Carol Cassis

Carol Cassis

9/28/2023

Updated: 9/28/2023

California governing bodies are now able to hold half their meetings online, extending pandemic-era rules after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill allowing such into law last week.
Senate Bill 544 has garnered significant interest in the days after it was introduced in February, since it would restrict the public’s ability to attend some government meetings in person.
The new law will alter one of the state’s transparency laws known as the Bagley-Keene Open Meetings Act, which, among other things, requires government agencies to allow the public to attend meetings, and to accept public testimony and comments during them.
Now, however, up to half of all in-person government meetings can be held virtually, where the public can attend via speakerphone—no video.
While the bill states that the public may still participate during such meetings by submitting public comments telephonically or with written statements, government officials are not required to be on camera if they are ill or experiencing other issues they disclose ahead of time.
Critics of the bill say it will erode transparency and accountability, allowing government agencies to duck from scrutiny surrounding their decisions such as in-person protests, questions from the news media, and face-to-face public testimony.
“[SB 544] erode[s] fundamental democratic protections and allow[s] officials to simply phone in,“ the California Newspaper Publishers Association said in their statement of opposition in the bill’s Assembly analysis. “While the pandemic taught us that remote work and work from home is technologically feasible, it also showed that it is not an ideal situation for government decision-making and advocacy.”
Parents speak at an Orange Unified School District board meeting in Orange, Calif., on Aug. 17, 2023. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Parents speak at an Orange Unified School District board meeting in Orange, Calif., on Aug. 17, 2023. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Those in favor argued virtual meetings actually promote public attendance by allowing more convenient access from anywhere.
“Older adults and individuals with disabilities are no longer barred from attending meetings or participating in State government simply because they are limited from attending physically. SB 544 will also remove impediments for low-income, rural Californian residents, and caregivers who cannot or find it challenging to travel to one physical location,” The California Commission on Aging said in their statement of support in the Assembly analysis.
Authored by Sen. John Laird (D-Santa Cruz), the bill was approved 30–5 in the Senate and 50–15 in the Assembly.
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Carol Cassis

Carol Cassis

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California Insider
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