Slowly but surely California’s open meetings laws are evolving into the 21st century.
Last month a landmark bill authored by Santa Clara’s state Assemblyman Alex Lee, ensures that municipal and county governments can continue to allow remote participation in public meetings post-COVID. Governor Newsom signed the bill on Sept. 17.
“With the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen a significant increase in public participation and political engagement in government meetings with online teleconferencing options,” said Lee in a press release. Lee has made government modernization one of his signature issues.
The law was needed because Gov. Newsom’s emergency order for remote meetings (and its extension) will expire on Jan. 22, 2022. The governor’s executive order waived several provisions of California’s open meetings laws, including the requirement that teleconferencing locations be open the public and that these locations be published.
COVID accelerated the move to remote meeting participation, but the change came at a time when these changes were already under discussion. A new report from California’s independent oversight agency, the Little Hoover Commission, recommended changes to public meetings laws to make these allowances permanent.
“The traditional requirements … those that were in place before the pandemic and that remain in statute today,” the report says, “make it extremely difficult for board and commission members to participate remotely…The law must be updated to reflect new technologies, and the practical experience of using those new technologies during the past year.”
Remote attendance with today’s teleconferencing technology fosters increased participation, Lee says. There are many people who can’t easily attend meetings in person; for example, those with physical disabilities, families with pressing schedules, people without cars.
“Having your voice heard during legislative hearings or city council meetings has often been limited to those who are able to take time out of their busy days to travel to meetings to speak in-person,” said Lee in the news release.
“During the pandemic, we’ve seen local governments adopt new technologies, and I’m proud to fight for the continued utilization of these important tools so that all voices can be at the table.”
The Little Hoover Commission lists several benefits of remote meetings, beyond the need to avoid COVID transmission. “Most agencies reported a variety of positive outcomes from the remote meetings,” the report says.
These include: “greater public participation, more frequent attendance by board and commission members, and reduced costs to the state. Of those agencies that have witnesses testify, nearly half reported that it was easier to secure witnesses.”
Although AB 339 only applies to cities and counties with more than 250,000 residents, it’s an important first step says Lee, and he plans to continue the effort next year. You can attend state legislature meetings and hearings virtually at www.legislature.ca.gov. The legislature returns to Sacramento in January.
Santa Clara, like its neighbors, plans to continue remote meetings for the foreseeable future.
Editor’s Note: An update to this story, Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed AB 339. For more details, find an updated story here.