PD Editorial: Keep the ‘public’ in public meetings

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

A pair of bills kicking around the Legislature ask Californians to consider a fundamental question about their government: Are virtual public meetings good enough? We — and a host of other government watchdogs and observers — say they aren’t unless it’s for a genuine emergency.

AB 1944 and AB 2449 would make it easier for state and local government bodies to hold teleconference meetings and keep some details secret. No city council or state board of such-and-such would have to use teleconferencing, but they could choose to do so with few restrictions.

Elected officials and public employees who must attend those meetings contend that the shift to virtual meetings during the pandemic demonstrated that teleconferencing is an effective, useful way to conduct the people’s business. They conclude that the government should meet that way more often.

Teleconferencing made sense as a safety measure during the pandemic. But it came at the expense of weakening public oversight and accountability. The state and nation are transitioning to a post-pandemic, endemic phase of COVID-19. Virtual government meetings should once again be rare.

The experience of observing elected officials in a meeting room differs from watching video on a computer screen. Seeing officials work in person gives people a much better sense of what they are doing. Body language is informative as are personal interactions — the sideways glance or yawn when the camera might be on someone else. In a public space, the press can ask probing questions before or after a meeting to keep the people informed beyond just what the government wants to share.

During a virtual meeting, things can go wrong at the other end of the camera, too. As anyone who has been in a teleconference meeting the past couple of years knows, it’s far too easy to zone out someone who is just a head on the screen. A web browser or work document can be a powerful distraction in another window. Don’t believe for a second that government officials are above the temptation to scroll through Twitter or fire up solitaire when a member of the public or an annoying colleague is speaking.

State law already allows officials to attend meetings remotely under some circumstances — and it should — but these bills would allow it at the whim of a lawmaker or bureaucrat.

The bills also would allow public officials to call into meetings from undisclosed locations without demonstrating a need for secrecy. Current law requires them to reveal where they are. Sharing an address might feel awkward if they are calling in from home or from a hospital bed. It’s not the public’s business.

Except that it is. When officials take office or accept a government job, they know that they are stepping onto the public stage when they conduct official business. The public has a reasonable expectation that official participants in public meetings be in the jurisdiction, not, to cite a local example, at a new home in Ecuador, or that they have a good excuse. Sharing their location is the best way to verify that.

Of the two bills, AB 1944 is worse, and lawmakers should reject it. AB 2449 doesn’t go as far, and where it goes astray of the public interest in transparency, it might be fixed. Its sponsor has shared a willingness to amend it. If she does, it is worth consideration.

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Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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