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Residents now can have their voice heard at public meetings of the Orange County Board of Supervisors if they can’t attend due to a disability.
In a policy change this week, Orange County officials are now reading aloud public comments submitted by email from residents who say they have a disability and request their comments be read aloud. The move opens up a new way for residents to weigh in on policy issues during the pandemic.
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The new option, introduced at Tuesday’s meeting, comes after weeks of concerns that the county comment policies were largely shutting out the voices of residents whose only option to be heard was to enter a room of anti-mask activists who decline to wear face coverings.
Public health officials at the local, state, and federal level have strongly urged people to wear face coverings when around non-household members, to reduce the chances of infecting other people with the novel coronavirus.
County supervisors Doug Chaffee and Don Wagner have said they’ve received a large volume of calls and emails supporting masks. Those voices generally were not heard at the supervisors’ meetings in recent weeks, until Tuesday.
The supervisors’ in-person-only comment policy stood in contrast with several cities in Orange County, which have allowed residents to call in with their comments during the pandemic.
Voice of OC Publisher Norberto Santana Jr. questioned the county’s lack of phone or email comments in an early morning column Tuesday.
When the supervisors’ meeting started about two hours later, county officials announced they would be reading emailed comments aloud, in addition to hearing from people speaking in person.
The first comment read aloud was from Doug Elliot, a senior citizen who said he’s been confined to his Irvine home for the last three months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I submit these written remarks because it is unsafe for me to physically attend board meetings,” he wrote in comments read aloud by County Counsel Leon Page.
“The death toll is mounting almost daily, Hospitalizations are the highest ever. The number of positive tests are going up, not down, while the numbers of daily tests are going down, not up. Things are getting worse, not better.”
“The fact that Dr. Quick had to resign due to the lack of support from this board is a shame and a tragedy,” the first commenter added, referring to the recent abrupt resignation of Dr. Nichole Quick, the county health officer, amid pushback from commenters and supervisors against her order that OC residents wear masks when they are within 6 feet of people who aren’t from the same household.
“Dr. Quick’s mask order enjoyed broad public support, even if not always from the loudest voices in the room,” Elliot wrote.
It made for a rare scene of the county’s top lawyer publicly reading aloud criticism of his bosses, the county supervisors.
“I also wanted to let the board know that I am extremely disappointed that you are in essence ignoring the scientific experts, specifically the epidemiologists and medical doctors who have vast knowledge of COVID-19,” said Orange resident Delania Grijalva, in an emailed comment Page read aloud.
“There’s no logical or scientific reasons why face coverings should not be mandatory in Orange County. It’s hard for me to understand why the board wouldn’t agree with the scientific community and the Centers for Disease Control that wearing masks in public can help control the spread of COVID-19.”
County officials said they were accommodating residents who wanted to be heard but said they couldn’t attend because of a disability.
“We provided an accommodation under the [Americans with Disabilities Act] to persons who (1) claim to be unable to participate in the meeting because of a disability, and (2) request that their comments be read aloud during the meeting,” Page said in a written answer to Voice of OC’s questions.
People who meet that criteria can email their comments to Page, said county spokeswoman Molly Nichelson.
The next supervisors’ meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, July 14.
Orange County supervisors’ comment policies were challenged in court last year by the American Civil Liberties Union, with a judge striking down their ban on public commenters asking questions of supervisors or addressing supervisors by name unless they have permission.
Judge Sheila B. Fell ruled that evidence showed public commenters were granted permission to address individual supervisors if they were complimenting them, while permission was denied to commenters critical of the board. That’s probably unconstitutional, Fell wrote.
“[The county] offered no evidence to contradict [the ACLU’s] showing that the Chair enforces the prohibition against those critical of the Board and grants permission to those who are complimentary,” the ruling states.
The ACLU, she wrote, was likely to win its “claim that the [speaking] Rule is unreasonable, and in turn, unconstitutional.”
This article was updated after county officials provided more information about the read-aloud comment policy.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.