Interim San Clemente City Manager Blocks City Council In-Person Meeting

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

San Clemente Beach on April 2, 2020.

San Clemente’s interim city manager is drawing fire for attempting to block the city council from meeting in person for their Tuesday night council meeting. 

Interim City Manager Robert Dunek sent an email to the council just before midnight on Sunday, stating that the council would be meeting via Zoom this week and that staff would not be required to come to the city council chambers. 

“The May 19th meeting will be conducted remotely in an abundance of caution for the benefit of all participants regardless of their location,” Dunek said in the email. “It is my request and recommendation that you consider the Zoom experience as supportable, but not necessarily the optimal, platform to enable the community ‘to see and hear’ its Councilmembers.” 

Dunek did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday morning. 

The council is also set to discuss further meeting options at tonight’s meeting, but Dunek asked the council to approve the use of Zoom moving forward.  

Mayor Pro Tem Laura Ferguson strongly condemned the action by the city manager, calling it “beyond outrageous,” in a press release sent out earlier today. 

“This is an order by a temporary city manager to lock the doors to council chambers and prevent those elected members who wish to show up to their jobs to sit in the council chambers as we did for the past three council meetings. This is in contradiction to my direction and a reversal of what we have already been doing with social distancing measures in place,” Ferguson said in the release.  

San Clemente’s mayor resigned earlier this year as he was moving out of state, leaving Ferguson the current chair for city council meetings. 

Ferguson has said she will not attend the meeting via Zoom and will go to city hall at 4:00 for the meeting. She said that the council has met in person during their last three meetings, although members have called in each time from home. 

“I will be there in person, so I hope they have a mechanism to videotape me and air the audio but they need to do video broadcasts,” Ferguson said in a phone call with Voice of OC. 

The city of San Clemente does have the equipment to broadcast the meetings from the council chambers according to Ferguson, who said that staff made the decision to stop filming and broadcasting the meetings with video without council input. 

Currently, staff record the audio from the meetings but only record video of the city seal while council discussion takes place in the background. Ferguson asked that staff resume videoing the council dais on May 5, but staff replied they planned to still film the city seal until the entire council returned to the chamber. 

“The council never voted to take videotaping away and therefore did not have to vote to return to videotaping. Videotaping of the meetings should have been returned when councilmembers started showing up in person which we did three meetings ago and simply when requested by City Council,” Ferguson said in an email to Dunek last Friday.   

Ferugson and Dunek spoke multiple times through email in previous weeks about utilizing Zoom for city council meetings, but according to copies of emails provided by Ferguson, Dunek raised security concerns about Zoom, citing an incident in Laguna Beach where a pornographer took over the site.  

Dunek’s opinion changed after a review by the IT department found a way to minimize security threats during meetings according to the email he sent to the council informing them about the remote meeting. 

“By implementing these protocols, in conjunction with Zoom, we now can better achieve a remote City Council meeting for May 19th  and the future as necessary while maintaining a safe environment for all participants,” Dunek said. 

The City Council has previously met via a teleconferencing service, but Ferguson said the process didn’t work well.

“We’ve been at the meetings in person, but the staff still won’t videotape us,” Ferguson said. “People have been complaining it’s very hard to hear with the telephonic system, it’s not the best.”