Santa Clara County shutters hybrid meetings—for now
The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors in the board chambers on Jan. 10, 2023. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    Santa Clara County is eliminating hybrid committee meetings in favor of an in-person only format, which residents said could reduce community engagement.

    County CEO Jeff Smith told the Board of Supervisors during the Jan. 10 meeting that a lack of resources makes it infeasible to continue providing hybrid services for every committee meeting. The general board of supervisors meetings will still have a virtual option.

    “We don’t have the capacity in all the locations across the county to do hybrid,” Smith said.

    Even though the decision is effective immediately, the supervisors are not ready to make this permanent and want to explore how to maintain hybrid services.

    Supervisor Susan Ellenberg said the board intends to review what needs to happen in order to keep committee meetings online.

    “I am committed to maximizing public access,” Ellenberg told San José Spotlight. “The office of the clerk of the board, about 47 employees, has worked heroically to move us nearly seamlessly from an in-person format to full remote meetings for nearly three years. As we return to in-person meetings, it is becoming clear that significant additional resources are required.”

    Local government bodies have grappled with the question of hybrid access as drops in COVID-19 measures have allowed in-person meetings to resume. State laws like AB 361, effective until January 2024, allow governing bodies to hold online meetings.

    Advocates said online access is crucial for residents who can’t attend meetings. Proponents of in-person and face-to-face interaction between the public and elected officials said the format is vital and technology upgrades are sorely needed to maintain hybrid services.

    Sandra Asher, a San Jose resident and co-founder of the Safety For All Coalition, a disability rights group, said the loss of online options means she will attend fewer meetings. Asher said she started virtually attending meetings during the pandemic, and makes a point to comment on issues she’s concerned about, like mental health or social justice.

    “I have a disability that causes me great difficulty and pain when sitting for long periods of time. I am not able to attend a full supervisors meeting in person,” Asher told San José Spotlight. “I would have to pick high priority meetings, and then hopefully I would be going with other advocates who could tell me when our item is coming up.”

    She’s not the only one, Asher said. Disabled residents who need wheelchairs to move around would have an even harder time, and residents who leave work to attend meetings would be losing money they might need, she said.

    “Enabling the public more access to these meetings, not less, seems like a no brainer,” Asher told San José Spotlight. “To the public, (this) can have a huge impact.”

    Supervisor Cindy Chavez said the shift to in-person only meetings could erase progress made in outreach and transparency during the pandemic. Online access is a necessity for disabled and immunocompromised residents, she added.

    “It is the people’s business, and that means giving them every possible avenue to access our government,” Chavez told San José Spotlight. “We also need to give our disabled community, seniors and so many others who cannot attend meetings access through hybrid meetings.”

    Andrew Siegler, a volunteer with Showing Up for Racial Justice at Sacred Heart Community Service and a De Anza College student, said he’s disabled and at-risk, and in-person meetings could endanger his health. He said having the opportunity to attend county meetings virtually allows him to be active in local government. He’s attended at least one committee or board of supervisors meeting monthly since last year, and often tunes in to committee meetings on law enforcement and public safety, he added.

    “I just want to make sure that there’s a lens of equity going on in these meetings,” Siegler told San José Spotlight. “It’s helped me be able to not only stay aware of these things, but to comment on these issues that are very dear to me.”

    Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

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