A state bill could force OC Supervisors and Anaheim Council members to hear from more residents by making them listen to phone-in public comments during their meetings.
The proposed law, Assembly Bill 339, would mandate cities and counties with more than 250,000 people in their jurisdictions to open up for telephone or internet-based public comments.
“It is a major commitment of time, which oftentimes is very difficult for people to do — in addition there’s health concerns,” said Peter Elliasburg, a First Amendment attorney with the ACLU.
Many residents have voiced concerns about safety issues when addressing local lawmakers in person during the coronavirus pandemic.
As of Wednesday evening, the bill still sits on his desk.
“If the Governor signs, it will change the way Anaheim and OC are doing business and in a positive way,” Elliasburg said in a Monday phone interview.
He said he wants Newsom to sign the bill because many people face numerous obstacles — outside of pandemic concerns — when trying to address their elected representatives.
They have to “get to the meeting early on, skip work and get child care — whatever it is, is very unrealistic,” he said.
If the bill becomes law, that means Orange County Supervisors and Anaheim City Council members would have to do what numerous other OC cities and agencies have been doing — take remote comments.
Irvine and Santa Ana — the other two large OC cities the bill would apply to — have already been taking phone-in public comments during their city council meetings.
OC Supervisors and Anaheim City Council members have resisted implementing phone-in public comments since the pandemic began, despite calls to do so by residents and some colleagues.
Yet much smaller cities and other government agencies who serve far less than 250,000 people have been holding remote public comments for their meetings throughout the pandemic.
Huntington Beach is allowing both in-person and remote public comments at their city council meetings. People who physically go to the meeting chambers are allowed to speak first, then the city clerk calls on people who phone into the meeting or wish to speak on Zoom.
In the Santa Ana Unified School District — one of the largest districts in the county — parents can call into school board meetings to make comments or speak in-person.
Laguna Beach, which only has roughly 23,000 residents, also takes phone-in comments.
In Anaheim, city council members decided to sell Angel Stadium and the roughly 150 acres it sits on for $150 million last September — all without public comment on the issue because the council chambers were still closed at that time and council members conducted online meetings.
Instead, city officials told residents to email in their comments on city matters.
“There’s a huge difference between being able to comment in writing in advance and being able to comment in real time — directly to your elected leaders. California law provides a right to do the latter,” said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition.
In a Wednesday phone interview, Snyder said it could be much more impactful when supervisors or council members hear the voices of residents — opposed to having a clerk read email comments.
Now, Anaheim is facing a lawsuit from a resident group, alleging city councilmembers broke state transparency law when they voted to sell the stadium without much public discussion. The lawsuit seeks to overturn the sale and have council members redo the entire process in public.
While certain emergency changes to the state’s open meeting law — known as the Ralph M. Brown Act — were enacted by Newsom last year to allow cities and government agencies to meet entirely online, the changes didn’t address how public comment would be handled.
A new law, which took effect Oct. 1, requires government agencies who hold online meetings to take remote public comments.
But that law doesn’t apply to OC Supervisors or Anaheim City Council members because they meet in person.
For nearly a year, Anaheim had no live public comments and didn’t read aloud residents comments sent in through emails.
Some emailed comments are read aloud during Supervisors meetings, as long as the person specifies a medical condition that prevents them from showing up to the meeting chambers.
Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu decided to reopen the council chambers and call council members back to the dais in January, when COVID-19 case rates and hospitalizations were still high from the Winter wave.
The city requires people to go to the chambers in order to get their voices heard.
The lack of remote comment options in places like Anaheim is why, Snyder said, he and the coalition are supporting the bill — despite it being somewhat gutted as it sailed through legislative committees in Sacramento.
“That right is really central to what the law protects — and that is the ability to interact with your elected leaders. There’s just a huge difference in being able to comment in person or in real time during a meeting versus having to guess which direction the discussion may go that way and send your comments in advance.”
Councilman Jose Moreno tried to get the city to take phone-in public comments, but was met with resistance from Sidhu and the majority of council members.
OC Supervisors meetings have been similarly conducted since the pandemic began last year.
Supervisor Katrina Foley, like Moreno, also tried to get phone-in public comments during meetings, but her efforts stalled out after not gaining traction with her colleagues.
“There’s still tremendous value to allow members of the public, who would not otherwise be able to attend the meeting physically, to participate remotely,” Snyder said. “That is crucial for the health of a local democracy — for the people to engage in a meaningful way.”