Californians demand government transparency. Virtual meetings keep powerful boards out of view

The California Air Resources Board meeting on "Advanced Clean Cars II" proposal at the agency's headquarters in Sacramento on Aug. 25, 2022. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters. | 

Today and tomorrow Elk Grove News will feature commentary on California Senate Bill 544. Today will be opponents of the bill and tomorrow will feature a supporter. The legislation have been approved by the Senate and was unanimoulsy passed in the Assembly Appropriations Committe on September 1.  

By Brittey Barsotti, legal counsel for Califronia Newspapers Publishers Assocation & Scott Kaufmann, legislative director for the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Association | From network |

In 1958, the Los Angeles Times sued the California Board of Education for holding secret meetings. The Times won that case, and a new law reformed the process for public meetings and decision-making in all state boards and commissions. 

Now there is a bill, Senate Bill 544, authored by Sen. John Laird, that seeks to restrict the public’s ability to attend these meetings in person. 

The Bagley-Keene Open Meetings Act was enacted in 1967. “It is the public policy of the state that public agencies exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business and the proceedings of public agencies be conducted openly so that the public may remain informed,” the law stated. 

The Bagley-Keene Act applies to “every state board, commission or similar multimember body of the state that is created by statute or law … every commission created by executive order.” It requires that these bodies publicly notice their meetings, release agendas, allow the public to attend and accept testimony. 

In California, boards and commissions exercise tremendous power. Some of the state bodies subject to the law include the California Public Utilities Commission, the Coastal Commission, the California Air Resources Board, CalOSHA and the Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training. 

Members of the public have the right to attend the meetings of these powerful regulators, to know in advance what’s on the agenda, and to speak directly to the commission members. In-person meetings allow reporters to interview members of the public who have brought their concerns before these bodies and ask questions of powerful regulators. 

In-person meetings are indispensable for the public to have their voices heard and for news gathering. When the CPUC discusses how to implement new income-based fixed charges for electricity, or when the Air Resources Board puts forward new regulations for rideshare companies, or when POST begins decertifying law enforcement officers, the public has the right and the need to know what’s happening. 

So it’s very concerning that SB 544 would change the Bagley-Keene Act to allow these government bodies to hold half their meetings remotely. And by remotely, there would be a staff member in a room where the public can attend with a speakerphone – no video. No way to see if members are even still listening or simply on mute going about their day. 

Learn more about legislators mentioned in this story

SB 544 is an outgrowth of the pandemic when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order suspending many of the provisions of Bagley-Keene Act. The emergency is over, but many of the commissions and boards want to make remote meetings a permanent part of state governance. 

Absolutely not. 

People’s lives are greatly impacted by the decisions of these powerful governing bodies. It is not acceptable to have board members and commissioners shielded from in-person public comment, emotional testimony or protests. In a remote meeting, no one can even be sure that the members are listening. It’s very easy to mute the public’s voice without anyone knowing. 

Remote meetings begin and end with a click and they are simply a facade of public access without actually providing it. 

SB 544, as amended, would require that half of a government body’s meetings must be in-person. Tough or controversial decisions will show up during the remote meetings, leaving the public outside looking in, speaking into a microphone without any assurance that anyone is listening. 

The bill lacks basic guardrails, including those from a similar bill that died last year. Rather than building on that proposal, SB 544 has continued to move through the Legislature without much improvement, despite concerns expressed by legislators and a unlikely coalition of groups that agree on transparency. 

California should expand access to public meetings and allow the public the opportunity to participate remotely, but that’s very different than allowing the members of boards and commissions to phone it in.  

SB 544 is a step backward into the days before reforms, when powerful board members and commissioners talked amongst themselves and made deals out of public view. The technology may be new, but the intentions are very old.

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