Local taxpayers should be able to comment at any public meeting they are paying for. 

Norberto Santana, Jr.

A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America. Subscribe now to receive his latest columns by email.

Yet it seems that many Orange County local politicians aren’t too keen on that. 

Since the pandemic took hold a year ago, many traditional norms of open government at the County of Orange and the region’s 34 cities have been turned on their head.

Few aspects of local government have been more affected than the ability to publicly speak to your elected officials.

[Read: The Noise of OC]

Readers will notice that this national Sunshine Week – a tradition started in 2005 by the American Society of Newspaper Editors to promote open government across the nation – we are publishing under the banner head of the Noise of OC.

Orange County Supervisors’ Chairman Andrew Do gave our newsroom this nickname last month, with the aim of ridiculing our reporters efforts to hold agencies accountable by filing lots of public records requests for source documents that offer unvarnished views of how government policies are being crafted. 

In a real boost to the spirit about where Orange County is today, Do’s sentiments drew a strong rebuke, not just from readers and local watchdogs, but from the region’s Press Club, which is hosting a video discussion about local government transparency this coming Thursday. 

Yet it’s not just on public records requests where government leaders are refusing to let the sunshine in.

Are People Losing Their Civic Voice?

Increasingly, county and city leaders are cutting the public completely out of the conversation at the weekly city council meeting. 

When city council meetings had to go virtual last year as the pandemic shut down most live public meetings, a wide array of practices were triggered and in some cases, like the City of Anaheim, public comment largely disappeared.

Indeed, if you poll the Voice of OC reporters and students that cover the region’s city halls and county agencies, you’ll find a wide array of differences on how the county and cities have adapted to ensure effective public comment is preserved at city council meetings. 

Sadly, very few agencies have taken up the opportunity to really marshal resources into increasing people’s ability to virtually interact with their local government, much less opine at city council meetings. 

There’s some exceptions to that, according to the reporters, like the cities of Irvine, Santa Ana, Laguna Beach and the Orange County Fairgrounds, some of the bodies that  currently allow people to phone-in, Zoom-in or email-in public comments. 

Public Comment at the County of Orange

For most of last year, the region’s largest public body – the Orange County Board of Supervisors – didn’t do anything to allow residents to remote comment at meetings despite getting $540 million in federal relief funds.

Indeed, I can’t tell if one penny of that half billion dollars went toward improving remote public comment access to meetings – something definitely related to the pandemic. 

We know at least $90 million was spent by the OC Sheriff’s Department, reportedly for impacts to their jail operations. 

After the ACLU pressed county officials on expanding public comment last summer, County Counsel Leon Page started reading residents questions/comments that are emailed in prior to the meeting, reading them out loud into the record, which often makes for great listening. 

Now, County CEO Frank Kim likes to brag that the OC board of supervisors was one of few bodies that kept meeting in public – and also kept live, in-person public comment going – throughout the entire pandemic.

He usually forgets to mention they all met without masks for most of the pandemic.

Kim – who got Covid himself at work – doesn’t seem to understand the political message sent by not requiring masks or providing remote comment ability to those who might disagree with the board of supervisor priorities. 

Indeed, it was only after CalOSHA regulations were cast down from Sacramento around November that county staff and supervisors started wearing masks to meetings. 

To date, there’s not been any public discussion on the county supervisors’ dais about how to increase public participation in meetings or get more remote, virtual public comment from interested residents. 

People Are Noticing

None of this is lost on the public. 

At the Feb. 9 Orange County supervisors meeting (video link), one man during open public comment identified himself as Hector B and directly expressed his frustration with what CEO Kim sees as a success, of keeping public comment open in a manner that favors people who are not wearing masks. 

Voice of OC is a 501(c)(3) nonpartisan and nonprofit organization built to be a real-time check on local government. Our work is dependent on open meetings and public records. During Sunshine Week we celebrate being called the “Noise of OC” for making abundant public records requests. While we encourage civic engagement year-round, this week we are offering extra guides on how to follow and participate in local quality of life debates. LEARN MORE»

“I’m even terrified to be here in this building – where you all don’t even enforce a mask mandate. I’m scared for my life. I’m just trying to invoke my First Amendment right, and I’m scared because there’s speakers ahead of me that aren’t wearing a mask, who are putting me in danger. You [supervisors] all are safe behind this glass box. But I’m not. Because guess what … I live in a community that’s under-resourced, that doesn’t have a vaccination center, that doesn’t have enough Covid testing. And you all don’t,” said Hector B. 

At the same meeting, Karenita Hernandez of Anaheim, in comments read aloud by County Attorney Page, noting that “Exercising the right to speak publicly to the board is more important than ever. It not only allows community members to share their concerns with the board, but also the citizens of OC.”

Hernandez said accessible public comment was more important than ever during the coronavirus pandemic.

“However, the county has not afforded their constituents a method of speaking at board meetings without being physically present in the midst of a global pandemic. Yes, there is an option to email in a public comment – thanks Mr. Page,” Hernandez said through an email read aloud by page to county supervisors. 

She lambasted the county for not considering  public health measures during the pandemic.

“It is unsettlingly ignorant to me that you would instead encourage members of the public to attend board meetings and give in-person public comment, when you … continue to refuse to enforce the state’s mask mandate,” Hernandez said. 

Hernandez also called on supervisors to be more publicly accessible.

“We’re demanding that the Board of Supervisors join the 21st Century once and for all … It is your duty to listen to [your] constituents, and adopt an accessible system immediately. Your failure to do so continues to stifle public participation. It is time for all of you to step up or step down.” she said.

Public Comment Out in the Cities

As I mentioned, out in the cities, the standard is all over the place. 

In Anaheim, after shutting out the public for nearly a year, Mayor Harry Sidhu in January reopened the council chambers or meetings, leaving that now as the only venue for people to address their leaders. 

The City of Santa Ana allows residents to phone  in comments, but they are not on screen. In addition, the city clerk also reads summaries of written emails sent in on topics. 

In San Clemente, which doesn’t accommodate for call-in comment, it seems residents took to the city’s YouTube channel to comment on ongoing city council meetings until that option was recently shut down. 

Huntington Beach officials allow for phone-in resident comment, something that reporters noted got very raw when beach closures were being debated last year. 

That prospect worried Irvine city leaders but they opted to have one of the county’s more open approaches to public comment, allowing phone-in, email and Zoom.

The Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School district has returned to holding meetings in-person, but they’re not video broadcasting those meetings, so former school board candidates like Misty Janssen and others have taken it upon themselves to stream the meetings on Facebook.

Parents as well as School Board Trustee Leandra Blades also have been pressuring the district to start broadcasting meetings, forcing the board to have a discussion on the matter just last week.

The district — which is offering students to attend classes through Zoom — is still researching how to do so for public meetings.

Everyone Across California Is Seeing The Same Problem

This isn’t just a problem in Orange County.

Across the state, different standards for public comment also have arisen.

Yet, this crisis is also presenting us all an opportunity.

We don’t have to go back to the old days where politicians would take neighborhood groups waiting to issue comments and just kick their issue to the late hours of the meeting, forcing many to go home.

Or operate like the OC Board of Supervisors, which meets at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesdays – a time where most people can’t be there in person. 

Now, everyone can participate remotely. 

Imagine the impact on local democracy, participation and policy if our public officials were actually able to hear from a broad section of the community — before they took action. 

Can California Require Public Agencies to Accept Remote Comments?

There’s already legislation, AB 339, that I’m learning more about that seeks to provide a statewide standard for what should be expected of government. 

The bill, sponsored by Assembly members Alex Lee (D-25) and Cristina Garcia (D-58), “would require all meetings, including gatherings using teleconference technology, to include an opportunity for all persons to attend via a call-in option or an internet-based service option that provides closed captioning services and requires both a call-in and an internet-based service option to be provided to the public.”

In addition, the bill would “require all meetings to provide the public with an opportunity to comment on proposed legislation, as provided, and requires translation services to be provided for the 10 most-spoken languages, other than English, in California, and would require those persons commenting in a language other than English to have double the amount of time as those giving a comment in English, if time restrictions on public comment are utilized, except as specified.”

What Was the Intent of Legislators Who Set Up California’s Open Records Laws?

In case you have any doubts about the intent that legislators had when they approved the state’s open meeting law, known as the Ralph M. Brown Act, way back in 1953, just take a read of the preamble. 

It’s a stirring statement of the aspirations of free people to stay ahead of their government, in charge. 

“The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”

Here in our newsroom, we love the preamble so much, we put it on a T-shirt for Sunshine Week.

Voice of OC Reporters Nick Gerda, Spencer Custodio, Brandon Pho, Noah Biesiada and Hosam Elattar contributed to this column.

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