Nearly a year after pandemic restrictions, Long Beach City Council could soon have video for meetings

Long Beach City Council meetings could finally incorporate a video element as the one-year anniversary of the last time City Hall was open to the public approaches next month.

Members of the council are requesting that the city look into ways the body can safely meet in person again, but the mayor’s office said that a video solution could be coming in the next few weeks.

Diana Tang, Mayor Robert Garcia’s chief of staff, said Garcia supports having the conversation to return to in-person meetings but in the meantime the City Clerk and the city’s Innovation and Technology Departments are working to get the council and commission meetings back on live-video.

“They are working to implement this over the next few meetings,” Tang said in an email.

In August, the City Clerk’s office said a video feature could be coming “soon” but the council completed the year without video meetings despite the city’s school and college boards using video throughout the pandemic.

The move has been lambasted by first amendment advocates who questioned if not using video was meeting the adjusted requirements for open public meetings.

Under the statewide health orders issued at the start of the pandemic, governing bodies are required  to “use sound discretion and to make reasonable efforts” to maximize transparency and allow public access to meetings.

Long Beach City Clerk Monique De La Garza said that the city has tried to balance security of meetings with access for the public.

While individual commission chairs have had the choice of how meetings are run, City Council meetings are splicing together technology from a variety of platforms including WebEx, Zoom and the city’s normal broadcasting arms.

“We didn’t want to invest in technology that wasn’t better than the ones we’re currently using,” De La Garza said of the nearly 12 months it’s taken for the city to begin implementing video conferencing.

She said Tuesday could be a test run with video returning full time to council and other public meetings run by the city in the coming weeks.

It’s been nearly a year since the Long Beach City Council met in person, and the last time the council chambers were open to the public was a surreal moment in time before the realities of the pandemic became clearer after the initial stay at home orders were issued.

Pink pieces of paper marked seats as “Not available” to ensure social distancing within the chamber and Mayor Robert Garcia sat alone behind the dais with the rest of the council joining him remotely. That March 17 meeting was the last time any member of the public attended a council meeting in person.

Councilman Al Austin is expected to ask the city manager to implement safety protocols that could allow the council to begin meeting in-person again as soon as next month.

In a letter to the council, Austin cited the number of issues that have come with meeting remotely, which was appropriate at the time due to the threat of spreading COVID-19, he said.

While the public would remain barred from entering the council chambers it should be safe for the council to meet in person, Austin said, pointing to the fact that most of it had been vaccinated.

“By being vaccinated, with second doses expected to take place this month, the risk for the Mayor and Council members to participate in in-person meetings is significantly reduced, provided that additional health and safety protocols remain in place,” Austin said in the letter.

A representative from Austin’s office said that Austin doesn’t have a particular format in mind and that he would leave it up to the city management and health department to determine how it could be accomplished.

City Manager Tom Modica said pulling this together will require health and technological solutions. The council would likely have to run two different softwares, one that it currently uses that allows residents to phone in, and traditional broadcasting that’s available inside city hall.

The city has been limiting in-person meetings of all kinds, Modica said, but even with limited number of meetings there have been exposures to COVID-19 which required contact tracing for those who attended.

While there is support for the body to resume in person meetings nearly half the council expressed opposition to the idea, pointing to the safety of their individual staff members and other city employees who have not been vaccinated yet and could be required to attend meetings to give presentations.

“I think it’s wrong for anyone in a leadership position to expect your staff to show up to work and expose themselves and their families,” said Councilwoman Cindy Allen. “It’s not a good look.”

The item was cosponsored by council members Stacy Mungo and Daryl Supernaw.

Mungo said that she supports returning to in-person meetings if it can be done safely, whether that’s at the civic chambers in downtown or another venue that can accommodate more physical distancing.

“I wouldn’t want that to be taken home to my two-year-old and then to her pre-school so it’s important to follow as many precautions as possible,” Mungo said.

Over the past year council meetings have been interrupted by technical issues with council members dropping off calls and plagued by accusations by the public that members are not fully engaged in the meetings. Unlike other boards in the city and elsewhere, the City Council has not used a video function during meetings to allow the public to see what the members are doing.

It also took months for the city to implement a way for the public to give public comment remotely, forcing it to send comments in digitally with no protocols to read them into the record. It took even longer for public meetings to be translated for residents who speak languages other than English.

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.