The public’s constricted ability to access local government meetings during the Coronavirus pandemic is stirring up increasing concern among some officials and residents in Anaheim and Orange.
That concern flared into anger this week, where the only way for residents in those cities to give public comment — and be heard out loud on issues they care about — is by showing up to meetings to speak in person.
The idea is somewhat unappealing to people wary of going out in public and risking exposure to Covid-19, especially if they’re considered especially vulnerable to the virus due to their age or underlying health issues.
In Orange, recent changes to public comment rules were on display for the first time at City Council members’ Tuesday meeting.
The public’s written comments were not read aloud at the meeting. And the only way someone could comment in real time was by speaking at the council chambers in person.
Meanwhile, Orange council members dialed into Tuesday’s meeting virtually, from their homes and offices.
These same rules are already in place for Anaheim’s meetings.
At the Anaheim City Council’s Tuesday meeting, an effort by Councilman Jose Moreno to schedule a discussion on making meetings more accessible in light of the pandemic’s restrictions created tension among colleagues.
“Currently, three of us (on the council) do not feel comfortable going to the council chambers. Any extra bodies we add in a closed environment puts everybody at risk,” Moreno said. “I would hope that we do have the ability and availability of technology to help bridge the gap.”
Moreno said many people are afraid to come speak in person due to the virus, and said “at the very least, I hope we can open up public comment to allow people to call in … or open it up to Zoom.”
Because of public meeting rules established by Mayor Harry Sidhu — whom Moreno often finds himself on opposite sides with — Moreno needed two other council members’ support to schedule the public discussion. No one spoke up.
“I’m just asking for a discussion on how we can make our council meetings more accessible to the public … rather than asking them to take the risk and come out in public to comment to us,” Moreno said.
Mayor Sidhu later asked City Manager Jim Vanderpool to state aloud the city’s public comment protocol.
But Moreno chimed in: “That’s not on the agenda.”
He then asked City Attorney Rob Fabela for his opinion on the matter.
“Councilmember Moreno, at this time, your time is up,” Sidhu said.
Fabela tried to interject, but Sidhu said:
“You’re out of order at this time, I have asked the city manager to respond to me.”
“As of January we started having our council meetings in the council chamber,” Sidhu said. “And we have made (access) for anybody who wants to make a public comment to come into City Hall … So it’s very transparent, giving everybody a chance to come speak to all of us.”
Similar concerns have arisen at the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District, where district officials restricted all access at their meetings to in-person attendance.
Orange resident and City Hall observer Adrienne Gladson said such rules “very much limit the public’s participation at these meetings.”
“Unless you’re there in the chamber tonight, you can’t be heard,” Gladson said.
Previously, Orange officials since July last year would read the public’s written comments to the council aloud at meetings.
During that time, those watching the meeting on TV or online could see the speaker’s name, the subject of their comment, and the time remaining for their comment.
Then officials sought ways to change public access to meetings. Staff proposed ideas such as the use of a live phone line for people to call their comments in, or even having speakers record their comments and submit them.
But officials ultimately opted for the participation model that was on display Tuesday, which some say is even more restrictive.
Gladson said it’s “not what the community had in mind.”
It also wasn’t what Orange Councilwoman Ana Gutierrez had in mind either, she said later during Tuesday night’s city council meeting, when she originally directed staff months ago to explore options for expanding public access.
“There are many people who are not willing to come out, that’s why I thought that … (speakers) could be online and (call their comments in),” she said. “That’s what I thought we were going to be doing.”
Her proposal that night to adopt a public comment format allowing live comments over the phone lacked enough support from her council colleagues, with only Councilwoman Arianna Barrios voting in favor of it.
Councilman Mike Alvarez said if residents are “really passionate about it, they’ll come here” to speak in person.
“I think the way we did it now is the proper way to do it,” he said.
“I think we’re actually doing much more” in terms of public access, said Councilman Jon Dumitru, who earlier during the meeting told residents their written comments were still being received and read privately by council members.
“Just for the listening public, your letters are read,” he said. “Your emails are read. I think I can speak for every one of my colleagues as they come in — they are read.”
City Manager Rick Otto said that staff were limited technologically, and had concerns about letting members of the public phone their comments in.
Cities that have successfully incorporated remote public comments over the phone include Santa Ana and Westminster, among others.
Otto said it was staff’s preference to restrict the public to speaking in person.
“It’s important the public understand that as much as we want to try to do all the things they demand, there are constraints,” said Councilman Chip Monaco. “Maybe we can see if there are solutions to (those issues) … that would be fantastic.”
Gladson said these issues aren’t going to go away when the pandemic subsides.
“We will always have people with illnesses, people battling cancer, people who might be single parents and can’t come speak at meetings in person,” she said. “We’re going to have to continue accommodating the public.”
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.