Orange County officials have taken away local residents’ ability to remotely listen to or comment at Commission to End Homelessness meetings – and must instead attend in person – in a change that’s fueling criticism from advocates, candidates and leaders.

For most of the pandemic, county officials held the meetings over Zoom, with residents having the option to participate remotely at the meetings – which are held every other month during the early afternoon on weekdays, when many residents are working.

Typically only about three or four residents would comment on major agenda items, with their comments remaining on topic to the matters at hand.

But starting in December, agendas show the meetings have been held in-person only – with the exception of one meeting in February.

That includes today’s meeting, which lists attendance in a county conference room as the only option to listen or participate.

The move appears to contradict the commission’s own vote in February finding that the coronavirus pandemic means “meeting in person would present imminent risks to the health or safety of attendees.”

The commission’s chairman, Supervisor Doug Chaffee, didn’t return phone calls and a text message for comment, including a question about why remote participation was canceled.

Local leaders, activists and supervisor candidates said it’s important to keep an option open for people to participate remotely.

“[Homelessness] is top of mind for many folks. Afternoon meetings are very hard to attend in person. And the trend is to continue to take advantage of the lessons we learned in COVID,” said Lucy Dunn, who recently retired as CEO of the Orange County Business Council.

“When we have the technology to do this, I would say that it doesn’t make sense” to take away the remote option, she added.

“If I were an elected official, unless there was some compelling reason on balance, I’d try to continue with a hybrid approach” of in-person and remote options.

Brooke Weitzman, a leading attorney for homeless people in Orange County, agrees.

“This commission should be taking every possible step to increase access, hear the impacted community, and make an evidence-based plan to end homelessness in our county,” she said in a text message.

“After canceling meetings, debating purpose, and often operating with missing board members, this step will only perpetuate the limited access by keeping out those who cannot travel or have high risk medical conditions, the very people the commission is tasked to help,” she added.

“​It is truly disappointing that the County opted to take this step that would limit access to the commission. Many of those who typically attend are unhoused or [at] higher risk for COVID.”

Voice of OC put questions about this to all of the candidates for county supervisor who made it to the November runoff.

Garden Grove Councilwoman Kim Nguyen, who is running for central OC’s 2nd District seat, said it’s important to have a remote participation option – and that she saw a drop in public participation when commissions switch to only being in-person.

“There are people who can’t leave early from work to join in, but can listen while working and maybe take a 5-10 [minute] break to speak [remotely],” or can participate in spite of transportation or health issues, Nguyen said in a text message. 

​​Her opponent, Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento, said canceling remote participation only undermines public trust.

“An ancillary benefit of the pandemic was that we used technology effectively to make public meetings more accessible,” he said in a text message. “The cancellation of these options will undermine the increased engagement, transparency, and the public’s trust.”

Supervisor Katrina Foley, who’s running for south and coastal OC’s 2nd District and is not on the homelessness commission, has been the only proponent among current county supervisors for allowing call-in public comments during their meetings.

Asked about the homeless commission, she said in a text message: “I continue to support participation by remote options. I favor more transparency and community participation, not less.”

Her opponent, state Sen. Pat Bates, says there should absolutely be a remote participation option.

“I would be very open to continuing zoom and teleconferencing. People have a right to speak to those making the decisions. And any way we can do that I believe is very very important,” Bates said in a phone interview, noting she and other state lawmakers had just been listening to remote testimony.

“Any input that we can get on the homeless issue is very valuable, because people understand if they have these homeless encampments in their communities, or they know people who are basically suffering from addiction problems and are living on the streets – those are the kind of anecdotal stories we need to hear to help us form the best practices to reach out and connect with individuals as we attempt to eradicate hoemlessness.”

Buena Park Mayor Sunny Park, who’s running against Chaffee in north and west OC’s 4th District, said she’s open to a Zoom option for participating.

“With respect to the County commissioners meetings, leaders should be visible to lead, and in-person meetings should be encouraged,” Park said in a statement.

“However, I would be open to giving the Zoom option to the County commissioners because those positions are volunteer positions with small or no stipends, the price of gas is rising, and we can limit exposure to COVID-19 and other variations while serving the community.”

Brea Councilman Steven Vargas is also running for the 4th District seat, and with recent results updates has been inching closer to potentially knocking Chaffee out of the runoff.

Vargas supports in person meetings, but questions why officials would take away the remote viewing option.

​​”I prefer in person for everything! But why would anyone take away an option that allows people to view from home?” Vargas said in a text message.

“The cost to televise meetings to make government more open and transparent is minimal,” he added, noting the county has a roughly $8 billion budget.

The only other candidates for supervisor in November – Chaffee – didn’t return a message for comment.

Tim Houchen, a formerly homeless man who is up for appointment to the homelessness commission, said the county should be encouraging ways for the public to participate.

“We need to have an attitude and an action plan that invites and actually encourages the public to participate,” he said.

“The answers aren’t always in Washington and Sacramento. Everything we need to end homelessness is right here in our own county.”

The shift to in-person-only follows a trend set in motion last fall by Supervisor Andrew Do, who encouraged changing public meetings from having remote participation to being in-person-only.

Do – whom Chaffee described as his “mentor” earlier this year – has expressed open frustration at public commenters who criticize him and other county officials, at one point trying to restrict the public from making comments he considered offensive at Board of Supervisors meetings in 2015.

Last June, Do canceled an in-person public comment opportunity that 116 people signed up to speak on at a supervisors’ meeting, 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 June 8 meeting.

When the last resident finished speaking at a board meeting the following, Do let out a deep sigh.

“I keep expecting public comments to be over. Are we in fact over now?” he said.

Wednesday’s in-person-only meeting of the homelessness commission comes as OC is experiencing a surge in coronavirus cases – which are now about 50% higher than the peak of last year’s Delta variant surge last August.Hospitalizations have remained fairly stable so far during the current surge.

Though medical research estimates that about 10 to 30 percent of people who get COVID end up with long-term side effects, even with mild initial symptoms.

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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