Santa Clara’s latest fight: Lawmakers turning on a Zoom camera
Santa Clara Mayor Lisa Gillmor. Photo by Katie Lauer.

Santa Clara councilmembers have a new battle on their hands: Whether officials should have their video cameras on during online public meetings.

The argument stemmed from a petition by San Jose resident and Santa Clara business owner Kirk Vartan, who asked the council to discuss adopting an on-screen requirement at the next City Council meeting.

The petition failed, with only Mayor Lisa Gillmor and Councilmember Kathy Watanabe in favor. The other five members claimed the requirement is unfair to councilmembers with spotty internet access.

At the beginning of the pandemic more than a year ago, all city meetings went online and Gov. Gavin Newsom suspended several open meeting laws to accommodate holding public meetings remotely.

But the discussion over turning off the camera wasn’t supposed to happen at all. According to City Attorney Brian Doyle, the council’s own rules say a formal petition from a member of the public is not up for discussion. Councilmembers must vote whether or not to place the item on a future meeting agenda.

“Your own policy says when you have a written petition, you’re not supposed to discuss the merits of the petition,” Doyle told the council.

That didn’t stop councilmembers from arguing for the next 25 minutes.

“I think we should all be on camera,” Gillmor said. “I’m hopeful pretty soon that we’re going to be back in person so that … the public can see us all in person on the dais.”

Councilmember Kevin Park said he preferred to have the option of switching his camera on and off because of poor internet connectivity at his house.

“I have got really bad internet and it’s not something I can resolve easily without going outside of standard resources,” Park said.

Councilmember Anthony Becker said he understood Park’s position, and he turned off his camera earlier in the meeting so he could eat dinner.

“I think it should be all on the will of the person who is on camera,” Becker said. “It is that person’s decision to be on camera, and I feel that personally I shouldn’t be telling somebody that they should be on camera.”

Doyle said there is no law that requires councilmembers to show themselves on video during a public meeting.

“As you can recall, when we did that at the council chambers we didn’t use Zoom,” Doyle said. “There were just kind of voices coming out of the speakers in the ceiling.”

Contact Madelyn Reese at [email protected] or follow @MadelynGReese on Twitter.

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