Clickability tracking pixel

Public Struggles to Participate in Online Meetings

Residents in San Diego County are finding it more difficult to participate in their local governments, and some find their voices have been silenced by the social-distancing precautions to stop the spread of COVID-19.

by Phil Diehl, The San Diego Union-Tribune / April 20, 2020
Shutterstock

(TNS) — Residents throughout San Diego County, Calif., are finding it more difficult to participate in their local governments, and some find their voices have been silenced by the social-distancing precautions required to stop the spread of COVID-19.

"Public agencies in our area have struggled with how to handle public input with no public in the chambers," said Diane Nygaard, who lives in Oceanside and often speaks to elected officials across North County about environmental issues and other concerns.

An executive order Gov. Gavin Newsom issued March 12 allows local legislative bodies to hold public meetings by teleconferencing because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it requires the meetings to be "accessible telephonically or otherwise electronically to all members of the public."

Nygaard and others said that's not happening. They worry that local governments are limiting access and shutting people out of the decision-making process.

"There have been a range of responses — ranging from horrible to barely meets the letter of the law — but no one really seems to be coming up with a way that really gives people a voice," Nygaard said.

To participate in the virtual meetings, most area cities require public comments to be submitted in writing, by letter or email. Letters of less than 300 or 500 words will be read into the record at the meeting at the writer's request. Some allow people to call and leave a recorded telephone message.

Oceanside, the third-largest city in the county, so far has not read any of the comment letters or phone messages submitted at its recent meetings, though the letters were posted on the city website afterward. That policy left a number of people unhappy, including members of the League of Women Voters of North San Diego.

"We have some concerns about how the city of Oceanside is providing for meaningful public input during these unprecedented conditions," League chapter President Anne Omsted said in an April 3 letter to the City Council.

Without reading comments aloud at the meetings, there is no guarantee that the council reviewed or considered them, she said.

"An alternative is to provide electronic means for commenting during the meeting," Omsted said. So far, few local agencies have done that.

Virtual public meetings are new, and most cities are still developing their procedures for them. Different jurisdictions have different rules.

Oceanside's way of handling of public comments so far is "minimal in comparison to our neighboring cities," said Oceanside resident Arleen Hammerschmidt in an email to the council and city officials. "It's mind-bogglingly disrespectful of public opinion, and demonstrates disregard for the public."

Oceanside Mayor Peter Weiss said the city is working on the process and that ideally online meetings would allow live public participation, which would allow people to respond to new information presented at the meeting.

The normal procedure is for city staff members and the developer of a large project to speak first on each item, and then the public has a chance to ask questions or make comments before the council makes its decision.

Limits on public comments are likely to become more of a problem when the council considers controversial projects such as large residential developments, Weiss said. Those meetings sometimes attract hundreds of people, and many of them want to express their opinions.

"We need to figure this out before we get our next big development project," he said.

A new policy proposed by Oceanside City Clerk Zeb Navarro would allow brief public comments to be read into the record if requested by the writer.

Effective at the council's April 22 meeting, the policy will allow just one minute for each comment or letter, only the first 50 words of each comment or letter to be read, and a maximum total of 15 minutes for each agenda item.

Most other cities allow at least 300 words of each letter to be read into the record. Some read every letter, if requested, however long that takes.

Carlsbad, for example, allows emailed comments of up to 500 words to be submitted until the point in a meeting when a specific item is heard, and it will read aloud all letters if requested. Other cities, such as San Diego, have a deadline the previous day for comments to be included.

Carlsbad resident Kris Wright, who sometimes speaks at council meetings in her city, said the public comment policy there is reasonable for individuals, but not for groups.

At its regular in-person meetings Carlsbad allows more time, usually a maximum of 10 minutes, for the representative of a group to present information on an issue. Individuals have three minutes or sometimes less when there's a large crowd.

"That is very important to some issues," Wright said. "Many of us will for a group on a critical issue under normal circumstances."

One agency that seems to have it figured out is the Del Mar fair board, also known as the 22nd District Agricultural Association board of directors. The nine board members, all appointed by the governor, oversee activities at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

Tuesday's fair board meeting was held via teleconference, with directors calling in remotely, and live public comment was allowed on each item from people calling in from home.

Some city councils, such as Del Mar, have said they intend to do the same.

"Hopefully, live public comment will be enabled during next Monday's critical meeting, on April 20, when budget cuts of approximately $2 million will be made because of expected revenue shortfalls from the pandemic," said Laura DeMarco, a Del Mar resident and frequent participant in civic activities there.

Other agencies still have a way to go.

San Diego Unified School District held its first open board meeting on Tuesday since the COVID-19 lockdown began, and the way it handled some public comments drew controversy.

The board had received more than 30 or so comments about proposed changes to early childhood special education, an issue not on the agenda Tuesday and which the district has postponed until next year because of the pandemic.

Instead of reading all the comments, board President John Lee Evans summarized them and read all the commenters' names. He said that if anyone wished to have their full comment read aloud, they could ask him to do so at the next board meeting.

"What (an) ugly exclusion of public participation, refusing to read public comments that were emailed," San Diego resident Sally Smith said in an email to the board after the meeting. "John Lee Evans chose not read comments, cherry-picked comments and failed to have 30 minutes of public comment per board policy."

Evans said in an interview that he did so because many of the comments were too long to all be read within the board's 30-minute time limit on non-agenda items.

He said the public comment process will be clearer and better organized at the next meeting, and he will no longer summarize comments. People will be asked to limit comments to 250 words.

The Chula Vista City Council live streams its meetings and takes a two-minute break after each item to allow anyone watching to call live and ask questions or make comments on the discussion. Pre-submitted comments are read aloud.

The Coronado City Council met in person March 31, but allowed only 10 people in the chambers at one time. People who wanted to speak had to wait their turn and have their temperature taken to check for fever before they were allowed to enter. Also, Coronado only read a random sample of 15 comments from the 260 that were submitted for the meeting.

That procedure also left some people displeased.

"I will not give up my rights to participate in my government's decision-making process," said Harold Myers, in an April 7 letter to the Coronado council. "There is no perfect solution. However, eliminating most all public testimony before the council is not satisfactory."

El Cajon will accept written comments up until the conclusion or vote on each individual item, according to its city website. La Mesa will accept emailed comments submitted by 4 p.m. on the day of its City Council meeting, Santee by 5 p.m. the day of the meeting, and Lemon Grove by 5 p.m. the day before the meeting.

Cities have varying levels of technological capabilities and access to efficient broadband, said Kayla Woods of the League of California Cities.

"Basically overnight, to protect the health and safety of city staff and residents, they transformed traditional public meetings at city hall into virtual conferences," Woods said.

Cities across California are working on creative ways to maintain public access and participation during the pandemic, she said.

©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Looking for the latest gov tech news as it happens? Subscribe to GT newsletters.

E.REPUBLIC Platforms & Programs