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As the coronavirus forces Orange County indoors, experts say the public health crisis is reshaping government in real time, where elected officials increasingly dial into key policy decisions through their webcams or over the phone.
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Yet many members of the public are finding that when it comes to their turn to dial-in, more often than not, there are technical glitches and barriers.
Most recently, cities like Irvine and Costa Mesa had to reach some council members by phone for city council meetings. Meanwhile, members of the public watching from home could not call into the meeting and had to email in their public comments.
During a Westminster City Council meeting that occurred over a web chat last Thursday, audio and video delays turned a routine pledge of allegiance into a spectacle of council members echoing in and out of each other at full volume.
And a series of quickly-organized County of Orange press conferences, using Facebook Live to update the public and press on the county government’s coronavirus response in recent weeks, also have faced numerous technical challenges with problems in video and audio feeds that cut out.
“We’ve got this considerable public health crisis, and we’re having to adjust our democratic institutions just to function,” said Mindy Romero, director for the California Civic Engagement Project at the University of Southern California. “We have to make sure that we’re still representative, and that we’re still providing robust access to the public.”
City clerks around the county told Voice of OC they’re trying to ensure public access throughout this new age of virtual government, though adapting to the demands of virtual public participation and figuring out the new apps and technology behind it has been a challenge.
Meanwhile, some residents and government watchdogs are warning public agencies against having crucial policy discussions on controversial issues while public access and input remains a challenge.
In Santa Ana, Planning Commissioners today could approve an environmental impact report and zoning change for One Broadway Plaza — one of the city’s most controversial development projects in more than a decade — over web chat through a software called Zoom.
“If we did not have a pandemic, it would be a little bit more business as usual,” said Santa Ana resident Jeff Dickman, who added “some members of the community have suggested to the city that perhaps it slow things down or maybe delay meetings until we get to a point where people can feel comfortable to rejoin the conversation.”
He said it’s already time consuming to comb through the city website to find information like staff reports and meeting agendas because they’re not always on the website’s front page. The front page of the Santa Ana website displays a link to all of the city’s council and committee meetings agendas, though that list is extensive and takes additional effort to find a specific issue discussed at a past meeting or scheduled for a future one.
“It’s been that way, frankly, for years, and people have complained about it,” he said. “But now you can’t even go to the meeting in person.”
Public websites “are not all equal,” Romero said. “But now even more, we need to know where that information is on the website. It shouldn’t just be on the page where the agenda normally would be, it should be on the front of the page.”
Echoing an op-ed she wrote for CalMatters on March 24, Romero said “we need to make sure that we’re still doing robust education around where these meetings are and how people can access them.”
Staff on Saturday, March 28 did send out an email notice for today’s meeting, which was also posted to “Nixle, Nextdoor, social media and email lists to neighborhood associations,” said city spokesman Paul Eakins.
Santa Ana City Clerk Daisy Gomez said staff is in the process of updating the city website, and that figuring out how to make virtual meetings work on web chat engines like Zoom is “all very new to us.”
“We’re learning a lot about Zoom right now, unfortunately,” Gomez said, adding that staff had to spend time figuring out Zoom’s system of using meeting identification numbers to dial in, while trying to then relay that information to members of the public on the website in an understandable way.
The unprecedented challenge of holding virtual meetings is forcing the city to “think outside the box,” Gomez said, and has forced staff to consider its limited resources “because the non-essential employees who help with a lot of day-in, day-out processes aren’t here.”
“We’re learning new technology on a whim, finding out what works and what doesn’t work,” she said, “being pretty much guinea pigs.”
At a March 26 OC Fair Board meeting, agency watchdogs could only make comments to the board and participate over the phone, and the meeting was only viewable via livestream.
“If you wanted to make a comment, you had to be on your phone, but if you wanted to see what was happening in the room, you had to be looking at the video screen,” said Reggie Mundekis, a local activist and frequent at Fair Board meetings.
She and other watchdogs like her husband, Vincent Pollmeier phoned in that day to criticize the agency over its spending of millions of state dollars to repave a parking lot, only to crack it open again for a Cirque du Soleil event that was later cancelled due to coronavirus public health concerns.
“There’s just one camera filming the room, so sometimes it’s hard to read board members’ body language or see the context of the comment as it’s given,” Mundekis said, adding the March 26 meeting “went okay” but only because not many members of the public phoned in.
“There has to be a better solution going forward,” she said.
Terry Moore, a spokesperson for the agency, didn’t respond to a phone message seeking comment Friday.
Westminster City Clerk Christine Cordon said the public health emergency has turned public meetings into a constant experiment.
“The bottom line is we have to allow for public participation in some way,” she said in a Friday phone interview after the council’s virtual meeting.
Westminster, which sees a large number of Vietnamese Americans and sits in Little Saigon, is “a very diverse community,” she added. “We have very specific needs in our community as far as participation goes. Had someone at the meeting needed language interpretation services, that would have been a challenge.”
The public health crisis’ impacts on local government could be long term, both Cordon and Romero said.
“I am hopeful that out of all of this, we could see our democratic institutions kind of restructure to be more accessible and be more representative,” Romero said. “Generally, most institutions move very slowly. It’s periods like these, where you see significant social disruption that can change our institutions.”
Other aspects of government like the OC courts — which are allowing attorneys to dial into hearings via conference call and video — and the county Registrar of Voters — which will hold some OC special elections this year entirely through mail-in ballots — have had to adapt to the public health guidelines as well.
But at the same time, Romero said she doesn’t want to be “overly optimistic” because “people right now are incredibly focused on one thing: trying to save lives and protect the public health.”
“The attention on things like democratic institutions aren’t quite there. We’re not even talking much about the primary anymore,” she said. “If we don’t kind of help consciously try to build something better out of this, we will be missing a rare opportunity to do that.”
Cordon called the public health crisis a “game changer” that has “made at least our city look at the way that we conduct meetings,” and the use of technology in facilitating those meetings, like online live streaming services.
“I would hope that at this point, some of the companies and technologies that we’re using are going to step up their game and give more functionality to their programs,” Cordon said, “so that we’re able to do what we’re trying to do right now.”
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporting fellow. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @photherecord.