During the pandemic, government meetings went online to allow for greater public participation and compliance with social distancing guidelines. But with COVID-19 on the decline, some are wondering when meetings might return to an in-person format.
Councilmember Dev Davis said a hybrid model helps make public meetings more accessible to residents though she misses the personal connection with other councilmembers.
“Personally, I’m eager to get back to meeting in person with my colleagues,” Davis told San José Spotlight. “Over the last year, maintaining personal relationships and collegiality was harder when we were physically separated. Our council will work together more effectively when we’re all back on the dais.”
At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, residents spoke in support of continuing with virtual meetings and said it was helpful not to have to drive downtown to attend them.
San Jose Housing and Community Development Commissioner Ryan Jasinsky said the hybrid model protects the most vulnerable.
“It should be the focus of the City Council and other commissions to provide opportunities to allow the public to attend any meeting they feel they can provide appropriate feedback to,” Jasinsky said.
City Clerk Toni Taber said hybrid meetings allow for more flexibility, letting people listen on their phones while working or cooking dinner.
“This will allow families to participate without adversely impacting school nights and dinnertimes,” Taber said. “A lot of people can’t take the time off work or from their home life to come to council and sit for hours waiting on the item they wish to speak on.”
But hybrid meetings are not without challenges, from outdated technology to the need for additional employees. Taber said significant investment is needed for software and hardware in the council chambers and committee rooms. She said the existing technology is 70% reliable for hybrid meetings, but can take time to upgrade.
Councilmember David Cohen said returning to in-person meetings is “incredibly important,” but he acknowledged the need for a remote option.
“I’d hate to think we’re going to end up keeping councilmembers away from each other and in-person meetings for a lot longer because of technical issues,” he said.
Taber recommended keeping meetings fully virtual while Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order is in place. The order suspended parts of the Brown Act to allow public meetings to be accessible electronically or by telephone during the pandemic.
But when the order is rescinded and the virtual component continues, Taber said the Brown Act will require the remote locations of councilmembers and commissioners to be posted on the agenda at least 72 hours prior to a meeting. That means the public would have access to officials’ home addresses and would be permitted to participate from those locations.
Jasinsky said he’s uncomfortable with that.
“I don’t know who these individuals are,” he said. “I don’t know if they’re vaccinated. I believe it opens the door to… potential safety issues.”
Councilmember Pam Foley agreed.
“That seems counterintuitive to the immunocompromised people or the people who for other reasons have chosen not to be vaccinated,” she said. “As councilmembers, we’re public figures. But members of our commissions and committees are not so accessible and nor am I sure they should be.”
Cohen said it’s pretty rare to have someone show up at an elected official’s house.
“But the law says we have to allow the opportunity,” he said.
Another idea being considered is holding hybrid meetings at community centers, upgrading the necessary technology district-by-district.
Newsom’s Cabinet Secretary Ana Matosantos said in a statement that there will be a transition period prior to the repeal of the order allowing for virtual public meetings. She said it will not end on June 15 when the state fully reopens.
“The governor recognizes the importance of an orderly return to the ordinary conduct of public meetings of state and local agencies and boards,” Matosantos said.
While continuing to meet virtually, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors has explored options to safely resume in-person meetings, said Clerk Megan Doyle. A few committees have met in person or conducted hybrid meetings.
Supervisor Susan Ellenberg said as public meetings return to an in-person format, she hopes public access remains.
“It is my hope that we take the learnings from 2020 around accessibility and apply them to fashion new models of engagement going forward,” she told San José Spotlight. “While working families could suddenly participate because they didn’t have to figure out childcare, others living in connectivity deserts or without computers or smartphones were left out. We need to solve for both.”
Doyle said the board already upgraded its chambers to allow for hybrid meetings and plans to continue to livestream via YouTube and the county website. But Doyle said how public commenting will work in a hybrid model depends on state direction.
Supervisor Cindy Chavez said she’s worked out of her office at the county administration building during the pandemic and looks forward to the return of in-person meetings.
“However, I do want to see a hybrid model continue because I believe telephone and online access to board meetings increases public participation and transparency,” she said.
Councilmember Matt Mahan said he’s excited to begin working with his colleagues at City Hall, most whom have only met him online.
“At the same time, it’s important that we continue to provide options for the public and staff to participate remotely and flexibly,” he said.
Taber supports the city using the hybrid model for future public meetings.
“We’re working hard to provide a smooth transition back to in-person meetings,” Taber said, “and hope to preserve the virtual component we’ve all come to trust and rely on during COVID.”
Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]