When the current COVID-19 emergency order issued by the state of California expires at the end of this month, public bodies governed by the Ralph M. Brown Act – such as our local Neighborhood Councils – will be required to switch from the virtual meetings they’ve been holding since the beginning of the pandemic back to in-person meetings.
But last week, after several months of outcry from many of Los Angeles’ 99 Neighborhood Councils, and supportive resolutions from the Los Angeles City Council, State Senator Anthony Portantino introduced a new bill – SB 411 – that acknowledges many NC arguments in favor of virtual meetings, and urges Brown Act revisions that would permanently allow such groups to continue meeting virtually after the pandemic emergency expires.
According it its text, SB 411 “would authorize a legislative body to use alternate teleconferencing provisions similar to the emergency provisions indefinitely and without regard to a state of emergency.”
In a press release from Portantino’s office on Friday, LA City Council President Paul Krekorian echoed what many city and state leaders have been hearing from various councils, commissions, and their committees across the state (including our own Greater Wilshire and Mid City West Neighborhood Councils), saying, “Virtual meetings have dramatically improved access to local government and increased public participation in the legislative process. It is time to modernize the Brown Act so that local governments can continue using this valuable tool to remain responsive to our constituents’ needs…and provide our constituents with the greatest possible opportunity for public participation.”
Also, Portantino said in the same statement, “Public participation is vital to vibrant discourse. Virtual meetings during the pandemic have fostered easier access to appointed and elected bodies of local agencies and increased public participation which has improved the democratic process.”
“It has also made it easier for folks with travel difficulties to participate and councils to have quorums,” said Portantino. “All good outcomes.”
The Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council has definitely been among those struggling with this issue. Board members voted unanimously at their January meeting to support two Los Angeles City Council motions encouraging state legislators to address the subject. GWNC members cited improved attendance at virtual meetings (by their own members, members of the public, and other local officials who find it easier to attend the GWNC’s meetings when they don’t have to travel to them in person), as well as savings of limited budget funds when not renting meeting space, environmental benefits (people aren’t burning fossil fuels to drive to meetings), and continuing health benefits (for both board members and those they live with and/or care for) as COVID-19 continues.
In fact some GWNC board members, such as board secretary Jen DeVore and Wilshire Park area representative John Gresham (a founding member of the GWNC), have said that because they are primary caregivers for vulnerable family members, they might have to quit the board if forced to return to in-person meetings.
“Many of us are older and vulnerable or, as in my case, caregiving for my wife who is at risk of infections such as COVID or the flu,” Gresham told the Buzz. “I have been specifically advised not to attend public meetings in person by her doctors.”
But Gresham said he has become a big believer in online meetings for other reasons, too.
“There are many advantages to outreach, inclusiveness and participation now discovered to be linked to the accessibility of online meetings, or having that option. Just look at the participation in [last year’s city council] redistricting process,” Gresham said. “Thousands participated who would otherwise not have been able to. Required attendance at a physical location would have dramatically, and negatively, impacted community involvement…which is the prime objective of neighborhood councils!”
And De Vore agrees. “NCs are strictly advisory and exist in a sort of hazy in between world,” she said. “I totally get having paid City and State employees being required to attend in person meetings as that is part of their job, for which they are paid and receive health care. It’s grossly unfair to require NCs — who do this work purely to try to make our communities better! — to meet in person and therefore to put ourselves and our families at risk. Especially when virtual meetings are more inclusive, better attended by the community, and just work better.”
It’s a sentiment being echoed by Neighborhood Council representatives across the city, including Anastasia Mann, from the Hollywood Hills NC, who was quoted in Portantino’s statement saying, “Zoom meetings have increased stakeholder, officials and presenter participation at least tenfold.” Also, said Mann, “The sudden move back to in-person meetings has grave foreboding for public transparency via attendance for not only stakeholders but also city officials and agenda item participants.”
Portantino’s bill enshrines these sentiments and more, saying, “During the COVID-19 public health emergency, audio and video teleconference were widely used to conduct public meetings in lieu of physical location meetings, and those public meetings have been productive, increased public participation by all members of the public regardless of their location and ability to travel to physical meeting locations, increased the pool of people who are able to serve on these bodies, and protected the health and safety of civil servants and the public. Extending the operation of teleconference as conducted during the COVID-19 public health emergency for bodies of local agencies with appointed membership will continue these benefits.”
While the bill addresses many in-person meeting concerns, however, there were still a few questions when it was first announced. Chief among these were the bill’s references only to “appointed” bodies or board members, while our local Neighborhood Council representatives are all elected. Just a day later, though, Portantino representative Declan Floyd send out a notice to local neighborhood council leaders saying, “We are aware of a drafting error that does not specifically mention “elected” NCs and only “appointed” members, and this issue is being fixed in Sacramento.” Floyd said he would provide updates as the bill moves through the legislative process, so people will receive notice of upcoming hearings and opportunities to submit public comments. Floyd can also be reached at [email protected] or (818) 409-0400.
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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