Do you attend meetings of the Greater Wilshire or Mid City West Neighborhood Council…or meetings of other city bodies such as the City Council and its various committees?
Starting in the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, these groups all switched from in-person to online meetings. But now – as pandemic life has become at least a bit more manageable (though it’s still very much with us) – the city has begun returning to in-person meetings for many groups, and is considering how, when, and whether to once again require that all such groups return to meeting in person when the city’s COVID-19 emergency order expires at the end of this month.
For many years, public meetings have officially been governed by the state-level Ralph M. Brown Act, which prohibits public meetings and votes that are not held in person. But over the last three years, pandemic-era emergency rules granted Brown Act exceptions that allowed virtual public meetings. And during that time, after three years of meeting exclusively online, many of the city’s 99 neighborhood councils (and other public bodies) discovered that online meetings have many benefits. In fact, virtual meetings often attract more public participation than the old in-person meetings…and many people think they might be worth continuing indefinitely.
This topic was first discussed by the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council at its December, 2022 meeting, when Department of Neighborhood Empowerment representative John Darnell notified the group that when the city’s emergency measures expire at the end of January, all 99 neighborhood councils will be required by the Brown Act to return to meeting and voting exclusively in person. (Non-board members may still be allowed to attend and comment virtually, as they do currently at City Council meetings, Darnell said, but all board members would be required to be physically present at a meeting to count toward a quorum, and to participate in any votes.) At the time, Darnell said the return to in-person meetings was scheduled to happen in February of this year.
But this news didn’t sit well with many GWNC members at the December meeting…nor at this month’s board meeting, held last night via Zoom, even though Darnell says the return to in-person meetings may now be delayed until March.
At both meetings, several GWNC board members spoke passionately in favor of keeping Neighborhood Council meetings online either indefinitely or for as long as a Council chooses to meet remotely. Their reasons included:
- Some board members either have sensitive health conditions or live with and/or care for family members with health concerns, so they appreciate the additional safety from COVID-19 transmission that virtual meetings provide.
- Some board members simply agree with health officials that the pandemic is still very much with us, and that it’s still a good idea to avoid large in-person gatherings whenever possible.
- All Neighborhood Council members are uncompensated volunteers and, as such, should not have to take health risks to do their jobs.
- As it has turned out – to many people’s surprise – online meetings have actually improved neighborhood council meeting attendance over the last three years, rather than reduced it (and that goes for both board members and members of the public who participate to discuss various community issues).
- Online meetings make it easier for city officials, who often have to attend multiple community events or meetings on the same evening, to attend our neighborhood council meetings.
- Online meetings can be much more affordable for neighborhood councils, which no longer have to spend large parts of their budgets to rent physical meeting space (unlike some other NCs, the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council has no public buildings within its boundaries that can provide no-cost space suitable for its meetings).
Among some of the more specific comments at last night’s meeting, GWNC board secretary Jen DeVore said she cares for her elderly mother, so as much as she likes and enjoys spending time with her fellow board members, “I’m just not interested in being in a room with all of you.”
Hancock Park representative Cindy Chvatal echoed DeVore’s concerns, saying an unexpected benefit of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the development of tools, such as Zoom, which broaden the reach of the Council and provide a “wonderful opportunity” for those who might not have been able to attend meetings before.
And GWNC Sustainability Committee chair Cathy Roberts said “the world has changed” in many ways since the beginning of the pandemic, some for the better…and that includes the advent of virtual meetings, which have significantly increased attendance for both the GWNC board its committees.
Finally, Wilshire Park representative John Gresham noted that this is true for city government as well as our local groups. For example, he cited last summer’s city council redistricting process, a city-wide effort that played out over several months but which attracted widespread community involvement because – for the first time ever – people could easily attend the online redistricting commission meetings, instead of driving to far-flung locations all around the city, as they’ve had to do in the past.
After the lengthy discussion last night, the board voted by a margin of 17 votes in favor and one abstention (board president Conrad Starr, who often abstains from votes unless a tie-breaker is needed), to support two recent City Council motions that would give Neighborhood Councils the right to continue meeting virtually. They are:
- Council File 23-0002-016, introduced on Tuesday, January 12 by Councilmembers Hugo Soto-Martinez and John Lee, and seconded by Katy Yaroslavsky, which supports new state-level legislation to permanently amend the Brown Act to allow neighborhood councils to continue meeting virtually “indefinitely.”
- And Council File 23-0002-017, also introduced on Tuesday by Councilmembers Bob Blumenfield and Paul Krekorian, and seconded by Tim McCosker, which also supports Brown Act amendments to allow virtual meetings for an even wider list of “local legal legislative bodies, including appointed boards, commissions, [and] advisory bodies” in addition to Neighborhood Councils.
Also, it’s also worth noting that similar sentiments were first expressed in an even earlier city council motion – Council file 22-1070, filed in September by Councilmembers John Lee and Joe Busciano – which asks the city to report on options for neighborhood councils to continue to meet virtually (or in some sort of hybrid format), and to give them the flexibility to choose the meeting style that works best for them.
While the GWNC has not yet weighed in on that earlier motion, our nearby Mid City West Neighborhood Council has submitted a statement, which largely agrees with the GWNC board members’ statements at last night’s meeting. The MCWNC statement reads, in part:
“Given that people no longer have to appear in person, we have noticed a great increase in the number of public commenters and general public participation. This has led to more robust meetings and deeper community engagement than previously possible. Additionally, virtual meetings ensure that even those working, at home with children, or otherwise unavailable to come in person to a MCWNC meeting are still able to participate; it has strengthened and made our local democracy more equitable.”
Based on these factors, the MCWNC statement requests that the city: “1 – Make virtual meetings permanent for neighborhood councils [and] 2 – Work with the state legislature and governor to modify the Brown Act, if needed, to accomplish permanent virtual meetings and/or exempt neighborhood councils from the Brown Act and set our own standards.”
What do you think?
If, like our two local neighborhood councils, you would like to weigh in on the question of whether or not NCs and other public bodies should return to in-person meetings, you can file an official comment on any of the motions above by clicking the individual Council File numbers above. Once on the Council File page for the particular motion, click on the red “New” icon near the top center of the page, and fill out the Public Comment Form the link takes you to.
In addition, the Buzz would also like to know what our readers think about virtual vs. in-person meetings for our neighborhood councils and other city bodies. So if you have another minute, please complete the following five-question survey… and we’ll do a follow-up story showing the results.
About Elizabeth Fuller
Elizabeth Fuller was born and raised in Minneapolis, MN but has lived in LA since 1991 - with deep roots in both the Sycamore Square and West Adams Heights-Sugar Hill neighborhoods. She spent 10 years with the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, volunteers at Wilshire Crest Elementary School, and is the co-owner/publisher of the Buzz.
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