PD Editorial: Virtual public meetings, a good side effect of COVID

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.

Early in the pandemic, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order authorizing local governing bodies in California to shift their meetings to teleconferencing and enable the public to attend via phone or the internet. As the state eases toward a full reopening, legislators are considering whether to keep those avenues of attendance open for the public. They should.

Assembly Bill 339, introduced by Assembly members Alex Lee, D-San Jose, and Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, would require cities and counties with a population of 250,000 or more to continue providing telephone or internet access to city council and board of supervisors meetings through 2023. The Assembly passed the measure by a wide margin, and the Senate Governance and Finance Committee — chaired by Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg — is expected to vote on the bill following a hearing Thursday.

Among the supporters are the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability and the ACLU of California. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, remote meetings have provided a unique opportunity for Californians across the state to better participate in local government meetings,” the groups write. “The past year has shown us how technology can help expand access and engagement with local government, and AB 339 builds on the gains of the past year to provide this access to more Californians now and once meetings return to in-person.”

The First Amendment Coalition also supports the legislation.

Absent legislative action, Newsom’s executive order on remote access will expire in September. That would be a shame. The coronavirus hasn’t brought us much to celebrate, but broader access to public meetings is certainly one thing.

For many Californians, voicing an opinion at a public hearing is difficult and sometimes impossible, no matter how important the subject may be to their lives. They might lack transportation. They might have health problems that prevent them from leaving their home. They might not have someone available to watch their children. Or they might be unable to take sufficient time off from work. The pandemic, as it turned out, forced officials to find a solution that helped all those people.

Opponents of the bill, including the League of California Cities and the California State Association of Counties, contend that extending remote access would place a financial burden on local governments. They also fear litigious individuals will file suit over technological lapses and even potentially overturn land-use decisions.

Those aren’t compelling arguments against an extension. Cities and counties with a quarter-million people or more should not find it especially challenging to provide either phone or internet access for meetings. They’ve been doing so for more than a year now, with no surge in litigation.

The original bill called for jurisdictions of all sizes and a broader range of governing bodies such as school boards to continue providing remote access. Compromises shrank the requirements to the current thresholds in the bill, but there’s no reason smaller jurisdictions, including Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Rohnert Park, shouldn’t voluntarily comply and continue enabling remote attendance.

As supporters of expanded access point out, democracy functions best when everyone can participate equally. Our elected leaders should welcome all their constituents to the table — including those who can’t attend in person.

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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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