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There’s a reason it’s called Government by the People.
And not, Government by the Politicians.
The standard in California calling for open meetings goes back to 1953.
The big debate now across our state is whether it’s time to take that standard virtual.
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.
Most open government advocates support that change — making it easier to participate at a local government meeting from home, by adding call-in, Zoom and email options for public comment.
Yet it seems many government agencies and their associations across California are against mandating such an expansion of public comment, mainly arguing cost.
Now, throughout the pandemic, one of the toughest challenges facing local governments with closed city halls was handling public comment.
Yet many cities did just that.
A number of cities — like Santa Ana and Irvine — adopted call-in options for public comment, as well as offering residents the ability to opine by Zoom or send in comments via email.
Nobody went bankrupt.
Now, during the pandemic the county’s most low-tech option — except a few small cities — came from the Orange County Board of sSupervisors.
At the direction of county supervisors, anyone wanting to comment about county policies had to go down to the civic center and stand in line — without any kind of masking requirement enforced.
While many residents complained that the supervisors’ action created a one-sided view of public sentiment on things like masks or vaccines, supervisors resisted efforts to introduce alternative, virtual methods of gauging public opinion.
It was only after a CalOSHA regulation in the fall that county supervisors started having County Counsel Leon Page reading emails sent in by residents claiming a disability.
The comments read by Page were generally critical of supervisors, but hearing Page read them was quite enlightening and in many cases, entertaining and witty.
Those soon got whittled down.
And while County CEO Frank Kim boasted in several public press conferences last year that the Board of Supervisors was the only body to keep their deliberations open to the public throughout the pandemic, the board’s story changed when large numbers of residents began showing up.
Earlier this month, when hundreds of local residents spoke during public comment to express their concerns and fears about things like masks, vaccines and Coronavirus response, Supervisors’ Chairman Andrew Do limited each person’s speech to just 30 seconds each, something that really offended most public speakers.
Now, whether Orange County supervisors like it or not, people have a right to speak up — regardless of what side of an issue they are on.
And whether it’s masks, vaccines or the most recent housing development, public policy at the local level can get raw.
Yet there’s nothing wrong with public debate.
That’s what America is founded on.
It’s what makes us stronger, more free.
Discussion and debate always nets better policy.
Yet it does take more time, something that always guards against fraud, waste and abuse.
Now, that’s something I’ve learned that politicians often don’t like, when taxpayers have time to consider policy proposals.
Here in Orange County — whether it’s the public budget, public health, the local general land-use plan or redistricting boundaries for local elections, county supervisors have historically kept a pretty low tolerance for public participation or opinion.
Like many politicians, they prefer to operate in the dark.
They are not alone.
I recently heard that a bill to expand public comment, AB 339, was pretty much stuck in the legislature, had no chance of moving out of committee.
Until the author agreed to exempt the state legislature.
The bill now is back from the dead.
It faces an early June deadline to be passed.
That has virtually every other type of politician in the state crying foul, with many public agencies and their associations complaining it’s an unfunded mandate to require them to actually communicate with the public they serve.
That should make every Californian stop and think.
“For most Californians, it’s far too difficult for them to voice their concerns to local policymakers. The tools that have allowed us to connect during the pandemic should be expanded to create a permanent solution for Californians to participate in their government remotely,” said Kalyn Dean, a Legislative Advocate for ACLU California Action, who has been working to push for AB 339 in the state legislature.
Grassroots organizing groups also note that opening up meetings to more vibrant public opinion can also help spur more residents to engage in government.
“Many communities often face geographic or physical barriers that prevent attendance at local meetings. Public participation in governmental decision-making is a privilege, not a right, and it is incumbent on the government to provide all Californians with equitable access to and opportunities for public participation,” said Olivia Seideman, a civic engagement coordinator with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.
The group Seidman works for became involved in the bill in an effort to increase government transparency.
“In the 21st century, all Californians should be able to join meetings remotely, and we look forward to continuing to fight for equitable public access for all,” Seidman said.
It’s not just public opinion.
The business community is also affected by government secrecy.
As local reporters monitoring local contracting, we’ve seen time and time again, losing bidders on public contracts come to the public comment podium and lay out details of questionable decisions for taxpayers based on their specific knowledge of an industry.
Here in Orange County, groups like OC Tax and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association have raised legitimate questions about asking public agencies to disclose more information — ie: spurring more debate — on how federal relief dollars are being spent.
So far, crickets on the fifth floor of the OC board of supervisors building on the reasoning behind the spending.
Now, here in Orange County, residents may not have to wait to see if AB 339 survives the gauntlet of political knife fighters it faces in the state legislature.
Recently, Orange County’s newest County Supervisor, and former Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley, publicly called from the dais for alternative public comment options to be introduced.
“I requested that public comment be accepted either through call In or Zoom call in similar to how the cities currently receive public comment. I requested it because many people have shared that they don’t feel comfortable coming down to the county, plus my experience as mayor was that you can get greater participation from the public if you offer a call-In option,” she said in a recent phone interview.
Foley said she doesn’t understand the cost argument saying,
“I can’t imagine it would (be costly) many cities offered call-in services during the pandemic and it never seemed very expensive.”
Now, it seems the idea of letting the taxpaying public in on policy discussions early always seems to trigger blowback from the inside bureaucracy.
So it will be interesting to see if Foley can make progress.
On Monday,, when asked about progress, Foley would only say, “The Chairman and I have discussed how to increase public participation For Orange County constituents. He’s open to suggestions for doing so. We will continue to discuss options.”
Something these policymakers should consider while they discuss concepts like 21st-century public comment is the transparency standard handed to them by the residents of California way back in 1953, when legislators passed the Ralph M. Brown Act.
The act boldly declares that public officials shouldn’t meet in secret, should allow residents to comment and must offer advance notice for their deliberations.
State legislators at the time, tasked Michael Harris, a newspaper reporter with the San Francisco Chronicle, who had just finished publishing an investigation called “Your Secret Government,” to write the preamble — just to make sure everyone understood the goal.
“The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them,” starts off the preamble Harris wrote for the Ralph M. Brown Act. “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.”