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Orange County supervisors are facing criticism for shutting down the public’s opportunity to comment remotely at their meetings, just as coronavirus hospitalizations quadrupled in OC amid the spread of the more contagious Delta variant.
For about a year, the county’s top lawyer would read aloud emailed public comments at meetings, after ACLU lawyers warned disabled people were being discriminated against by the supervisors’ prior policy of only allowing in-person comments during the pandemic.
But at their mid-July meeting, county officials stopped reading aloud comments and are now only allowing public comments from people who come speak in person in a boardroom with dozens of people who have railed against the vaccines, masks and other public health measures.
Supervisor Katrina Foley is the only board member publicly pushing back, asking her colleagues to let people comment remotely like Santa Ana and other cities have been doing.
She tried again last week, just as the county’s top health official urged residents to wear masks indoors and “avoid large crowds, where it is easy for the virus to pass from person to person.”
Foley’s effort was shut down by Chairman Andrew Do and the other supervisors.
“With regard to anyone who sent an email in,” Foley asked, “will we be allowing [County Counsel Leon] Page to read the emails, in light of the Delta variant and some people concerned about coming to the –”
“No,” Do interrupted.
“We will submit copies of the emails to all of our [supervisor] offices,” Do added.
Foley tried again.
“I’d like to request that we allow them to be read, given that no one is being required to wear masks in the boardroom, and some people are not comfortable coming into the boardroom,” she said.
Do and the other supervisors rejected her request and moved on to the meeting without reading written comments aloud.
“We will get copies of the emails,” Do said.
Meanwhile, San Diego County residents are allowed to call in during public comment and voice their views at county supervisor meetings there.
Some cities throughout OC also are allowing call-in comments, like Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach, Irvine and Westminster.
Voice of OC contacted all five supervisors and County Counsel Leon Page for comment, including why they are no longer allowing remote public comments.
Foley was the only one who responded.
“Because the chambers are filled with unvaccinated individuals, members of the community don’t feel comfortable or safe coming into our chambers.”Supervisor Katrina Foley said in an interview late last week
“And so we should be providing them with a safe alternative,” added Foley, who took office in March.
For months, she’s been pushing for a call-in option for residents to comment during the meetings.
“Since I got to the [supervisor] position, I have been requesting that we allow for call-in or for Zoom [public comments], just as I did as mayor of the city of Costa Mesa. It can be done.”
Transparency advocates criticized the supervisor majority’s latest move to restrict public comments.
“It just reads hostility to public involvement in their affairs, which is troubling.”David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition
He said officials should allow for phone-in comments.
“Legislative bodies subject to the Brown Act should be looking for ways to expand public access, not constrict it. And I think that a jurisdiction as large as Orange County ought to be working to find out ways to provide remote, live testimony. not to mention email comments,” he added.
Since county officials have publicly read aloud comments before, Snyder said, it shouldn’t be a problem to reinstate the practice.
ACLU officials say the board’s policy discriminates against people with disabilities, including compromised immune systems.
“We know with the spread of the Delta variant … COVID-19 has not been contained. And a lot of people do have serious concerns about their health — disabled people, immunocompromised people,” said Sari Zureiqat, a First Amendment legal fellow with the ACLU of Southern California.
“A policy like this, it definitely burdens people with disabilities. If they decide that the best way to make themselves heard is to go in, then they’re forced to risk their health, potentially, in order to access the government. We think that’s legally problematic.”Sari Zureiqat, a First Amendment legal fellow with the ACLU of Southern California
For years, county supervisors had a rule banning public commenters from mentioning the supervisors’ names or questioning them without permission.
Supervisors kept those restrictions on the books for until this year, when they agreed to lift them to settle an ACLU lawsuit that supervisors fought for two years with taxpayer dollars.
Rules around how the meeting is conducted are often led by the supervisors’ chair, who is Andrew Do this year.
In June, Do canceled a public comment opportunity that 116 people signed up to speak on, just after he expressed doubt that the residents’ voices would really matter.
“I don’t know if the public comments will necessarily guide how we think,” Do said at the Jun 8 meeting.
When the last resident finished speaking at a board meeting last month, Do let out a deep sigh.
“I keep expecting public comments to be over. Are we in fact over now?” he said.
David Duran, a resident who’s been submitting written public comments during the pandemic, said the supervisors’ new policy silences him and other disabled speakers.
“These actions support the idea that the public is strategically being ignored,” Duran said in written comments he submitted to the county for the July 27 meeting, which were not read aloud due to the new policy.
He called it “another example of the Board’s actions to silence the public” and “ignore the rights and needs of the public to self-quarantine due to COVID.”
Duran said it’s simply unsafe for people in a similar situation to physically show up to supervisors meetings to voice their opinions.
“So, I along with many of the public’s rights are silenced and we are unable to participate in our government process because the chair and those who are trained and coerced to follow Andrew Do’s authoritarian rule, continue to silently and unlawfully comply with the actions that continue to negatively ignore the voice of public, ‘We the people,’ and the spirit of the laws that are put in place to govern public meetings,” Duran wrote.
County officials haven’t said why they canned reading the written comments aloud.
But they said residents can now come to the supervisors’ meeting chambers to speak if they want to be heard.
“The County read written comments to accommodate ADA concerns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” a county spokeswoman said last month in response to questions to County Counsel Leon Page and CEO Frank Kim, after the new policy went into effect.
“As Board meetings are now fully reopened to members of the general public, public commenters may provide their public comments in person,” they added.
Foley said the county should be making it easier, not harder, to participate in meetings about how their tax dollars are being used.
“I think we should be providing accessible opportunities for the public to participate in their local government,” she said.
She also said letting people phone-in to public comment sessions exposes officials to a prism of opinions.
“What I found as mayor [of Costa Mesa] when we opened [public comment] up to the call-ins, was more and different people called in,” Foley said.
“It wasn’t just the same five people … it was a lot more accessible than driving down [to City Hall] and waiting for five hours.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.