Protecting politicians: California bill would allow Zoom meetings from undisclosed locations

Jason Robo asked to apologize
A controversial meeting of the oversight board on COVID restrictions in November 2021. Image of the meeting live

A combination of angry citizens at public hearings and the continued live streaming of many local government meetings has convinced some lawmakers that it’s time to rethink the way public business is conducted at the state level and at local level.

It was nearly a year ago last August when a live meeting of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors turned sour. There were more than 100 speakers, some of them shouting profanity and threatening violence over planned COVID-19 restrictions.

Previously, when in-person meetings were deemed unsafe due to the pandemic, local legislative bodies were allowed to hold public meetings via teleconference by order of Governor Gavin Newsom. The meetings were to be “accessible by telephone or electronically to all members of the public”. The order allowed the agencies to waive a Ralph M. Brown Act requirement that meetings be held in person.

Fast forward to an Assembly bill that is currently making its way through the state Legislature. The bill, AB 2449, was prompted, in part, by concerns about the safety of government officials as well as a growing realization that teleconferencing government meetings may well be the future of how work public governance will be carried out.

“It’s in retrospect of instances of harassment and danger for some representatives to post their physical location and make it accessible,” said Daniel Folwarkow, legislative director of the bill’s author, the member of the Assembly Blanca E. Rubio. “In the 21st century, we have better ways to enable access while simultaneously providing a degree of flexibility.

Supporters say the bill is an effort to “modernize” the state’s open meeting law to reflect what is happening in California.

However, there are elements of the bill that proponents of open government oppose. They believe this is a fundamental change to the key law that guarantees transparency in public affairs: the Brown Law.

The law applies to all California legislative bodies, from water districts to the state assembly. It guarantees in the state constitution the right of the public to attend and participate in meetings of local elected officials. It was adopted in 1953 due to concerns about secret meetings that were not made known to the public.

The goal of AB 2449, say its supporters, is to encourage greater participation in remote public meetings. The bill’s sponsors believe it will achieve this by building on the temporary changes made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. At that time, California government entities could hold meetings remotely without having to post an agenda in a physical location or make remote meeting sites accessible to the public due to Newsom’s state of emergency. .

The Brown Law itself has permitted remote meetings for years, but requires several requirements outside of a declared state of emergency, such as notifying the public of where the official is holding a teleconference.

AB 2449 would change that, allowing legislative bodies to broadcast their meetings remotely from private, unidentified or publicly accessible locations at any time for no good reason.

Proponents of the bill argue that some members of local government should not have to disclose their home addresses.

With only remote access, the ability to ask members questions on or near the dais, as is customary, is prevented, say open government advocates who believe the bill, if it is passed as now written, would fundamentally change the Brown Act. The ability of journalists and citizens to access their leaders may well be limited by the proposed changes.

A coalition of advocacy groups — Californians Aware, the ACLU, the Leadership Counsel for Justice & Accountability, and the First Amendment Coalition — collectively oppose this element of the bill, saying it would remove what has been a ” long-standing Democratic protection in California, forcing lawmakers to face the public directly.

Critics say the bill as drafted would allow an elected official to attend a meeting by teleconference while sitting at home or in an office. It may have been an excuse during the pandemic, but not now, they say. The public’s right to “meaningful access” should not be limited to accommodate public servants who do not want to attend meetings.

Folwarkow of Rubio’s office said they were working with the coalition and had developed guardrails to “ensure transparency” by requiring officials to disclose at the start that they will be at a distance and join both video and audio. An official must also disclose if anyone is with them and what their “general relationship to the corps member” is.

The coalition of four groups suggested removing this element from the bill for now, as it “will make substantial changes to the laws that have ensured democracy at the local government level for generations”. The California League of Cities opposes the changes suggested by the coalition.

Legislative affairs lobbyist Johnnie Piña said current Brown Law rules requiring officials to tell the public where officials are during a teleconference and allowing the public to join those meetings from the same location is a risky business. “This poses serious public safety concerns and discourages remote meetings,” he said.

AB 2449 seeks to remove this requirement first established in the Brown Act, but Piña said recent amendments to the bill undermine its overall usefulness, such as limiting participation in remote meetings for more than three consecutive months. . “We think the changes are too complicated and onerous, which makes it much less likely that cities will opt into this new section of the Brown Law,” he said.

There seems to be little opposition to other suggested changes, such as requiring members to be filmed or providing phone access for those who don’t have a good internet connection. In the event of a disruption that prevents the legislature from broadcasting the meeting to the public or allowing members of the public to comment, no further action may take place with the items on the meeting’s agenda.

The legislation adds that requests for public comment need not be submitted before the meeting and that the public must be given an opportunity to comment.

JW August is a San Diego-based broadcast and digital journalist. August reported on sex trafficking and forced labor for twenty years.

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