More than a year of lockdowns and mask-ups to combat COVID-19 has produced new ways of living, working and connecting with each other.
We go shopping and to church over the internet. We are seen by our doctors, conduct all sorts of business, work remotely, and keep connected to family and friends. The internet even lets us watch and attend public government meetings from our homes.
These virtual arrangements have proved to be so efficient, cost-effective and convenient that they should continue beyond the pandemic.
Companies and their employees are gearing up for more remote working arrangements. Online shopping will expand. And telemedicine increasingly will eliminate the need to take time off from work, arrange child care and travel distances for routine appointments.
But continuation of virtual public government meeting seems to have hit a roadblock — at least in Kern County.
Several local school districts announced recently that their virtual meetings will be discontinued. Despite pleas from parents and others, people will not be able to participate through remote systems, such as Zoom.
Why? Good government organizations, including the respected Little Hoover Commission, have noted virtual meetings are cost-saving and increase public participation. In some cases, they result in more civility, as agitators are less likely to heckle, play to their audience and provoke physical confrontations.
As disputes over student mask-wearing and vaccinations have escalated, school board members are expressing concerns over their own safety. You would think maintaining decorum would be a big motivator for continuing virtual meetings.
Maybe a bigger motivator to end such meetings is that fewer members of the public will show up and participate if they have to attend in person, arrange for transportation and child care, take off work for daytime meetings, and put up with angry heckling mobs.
There is nothing particularly sophisticated about the systems that allowed public participation. They are basically the same systems that allow us to stay connected to family and friends, and allow companies to remotely conduct business.
An executive order signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last year temporarily suspended requirements of the state’s open meeting laws to allow virtual meetings, rather than require participants to attend in person.
As the executive order was due to expire in September, Newsom signed Assembly Bill 361, authored by Assemblyman Robert Rivas, D-Hollister, which allows government agencies to continue use of teleconferencing systems to conduct public meetings.
But the new law sets limits:
● A state of emergency, such as a pandemic requiring social distancing, fire, flood, earthquake, etc., must be proclaimed.
● A majority vote of the governing board must agree there is a qualifying emergency and need for remote meetings.
● A government agency must review its decision every 30 days and determine that the need still exists.
The ongoing pandemic constitutes such a need — particularly in Kern County, where the vaccination rate is among the lowest in California.
When a remote meeting is conducted, an agency must:
● Give public notice and post agendas, as required by the Brown Act.
● Provide ways for the public to legally access the meeting in person and virtually.
● Not require public comments to be submitted in advance of a meeting.
● Not take action on agenda items if a broadcast of the meeting is disrupted.
AB 361 also amends the Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act, which applies to state government agency meetings.