Requiring in-person government meetings across California will only reduce public participation

By Jennifer M. Urban | Network |

Jennifer M. Urban is the board chairperson for the California Privacy Protection Agency.

California’s government became more accessible during the pandemic. The state has a chance to maintain and grow accessibility for the public and for those who serve the public on boards, bureaus and commissions – but it requires prompt action.

During the pandemic, the governor and Legislature allowed boards and commissions to hold public meetings remotely. My own board, which governs the California Privacy Protection Agency, held 17 public videoconference meetings and outreach sessions under these rules. Board members and agency staff located throughout California efficiently held meetings without the time and expense of travel. 

We met often and welcomed hundreds of public attendees each time.

The ability to meet remotely expired in June, although there are ongoing efforts to extend it. Senate Bill 544, as introduced, would ensure state boards and bureaus can hold public meetings remotely, as long as members of the public have the option to attend in person. However, state Sen. John Laird, the bill’s author, accepted amendments that require most board members to attend at least half of the yearly meetings in person. 

This gutted the bill’s benefits. Not only were boards and commissions more accessible to the public under the temporary rules, but the ability to serve on boards and commissions was accessible to far more Californians. The new amendments essentially eliminated these benefits, reviving limitations on who can join meetings and who can serve. 

Most boards and commissions in California are made up of part-time volunteers. Every Californian deserves the opportunity to serve, and every Californian deserves representatives who reflect their communities. Cutting remote meeting options severely undermines that goal. It would make service difficult or impossible for many parents, caregivers and those who can’t take off work.

That is just the beginning. California has nearly 40 million people, spread over a vast geographic area. With many board meetings in metropolitan cities, those who live in other regions face significant logistical challenges and expenses to physically attend meetings. People with important perspectives from more rural areas may not be able to participate with the governing bodies that impact their communities.  

Learn more about legislators mentioned in this story

John Laird

State Senate, District 17 (Santa Cruz)

This requirement will also create roadblocks for many of the more than 4 million Californians with disabilities. This is personal for me – I have a connective tissue disorder that limits my ability to travel. I take pride in my service, but if I had to regularly travel long distances for meetings, I may not be able to continue. 

I am only one example. There are many others who would be negatively affected by the amendments to SB 544. 

There are benefits to meeting in person. I value seeing my fellow board members, staff and members of the public in person. But the benefits of in-person meetings do not outweigh the twin harms of making it harder for the public to attend meetings and potentially excluding many talented and dedicated Californians from service.

And let’s be real. My board held a public meeting in July. We welcomed four members of the public in person – and over 200 people remotely. 

It’s clear which option better engages the public.

The Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act was passed decades ago to increase government transparency and participation – to give the public a seat at the table. That is a worthy goal we can all support. But the law’s in-person meeting requirements reflected what was possible at the time, not what is possible now.

Today, we can increase transparency and participation even more. Inaccessibility is a problem we can and should solve. If we truly believe in participation by Californians from all communities and all walks of life, then public meetings should not be limited to the few. They should be accessible to all.

Pandemic-era rules allowed government boards and committees to hold meetings virtually, but they expired in June. Pending legislation would extend many of those provisions, but opposition groups argue that in-person requirements are essential for transparency and media access, and ensure the public is heard.

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