After months of silence, the public can again comment during city meetings—but is it enough?

After nearly three months of hosting public meetings without live public comment, next week’s City Council meeting will again allow for members of the public to address the council, but it will be through a phone.

Why it took so long for the city to be able to figure out a way to allow for more meaningful participation in public meetings during the pandemic was a matter of policy, as well as social distancing efforts, officials said.

A crowd of over 100 protesters filled the courtyard outside Long Beach City Hall Tuesday demanding more access to meetings. The protest came one day after the city clerk announced a new phone-in system that will allow up to 20 people per item to speak starting June 16.

Mayor Robert Garcia said during a Wednesday media briefing that the city had been working with the city attorney’s office to follow the orders issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom in March that suspended some aspects of California public meeting laws but still required public meetings to allow for public comment.

For three months the city has required members of the public to submit their opinions on topics through an e-comment portal or through email. The comments were then printed out and given to each council member, according to the city clerk.

But starting June 16 member will be able to call in to voice their feelings.

“We’re looking forward to having it back next week,” Garcia said.

The June 16 agenda includes a vote on an ordinance on short-term rentals and an amendment to another ordinance that would implement a payment program for missed rental payments sustained by residential and commercial tenants during the COVID-19 shutdown.

Public comment during COVID

Long Beach system will use the Webex system that the council has been using since March with the public able to register for items and then city staff will call them back when the comment period is open. 
Long Beach City Clerk Monique De La Garza said that the new system will require more staff to be packed into an already tight space as additional employees will be used to call back members signed up for public comment. Social distancing and mask wearing will be implemented but she said it will be challenging.

“That was a huge concern of mine and it still is,” De La Garza said. “It’s a small media room and we’re now going to have to have more people in there making those calls.”

Capping the number of people who can speak on an item at 20 was a decision that was made to help balance public access but also keep the flow of the meeting going, according to De La Garza. She said this will be a test for the city but she’s hopeful that there won’t be any technical issues.

Opening up City Hall in some capacity for people to comment in person will be a call made by the city manager, but she said that she’s hopeful that will happen sooner rather than later.

What other cities have done

Long Beach was not alone in using the less personal e-comment option for its residents. Cities across the state have struggled to create an environment that resembles the meetings that were held previous to the COVID-19 shutdowns.

Many went the route that Long Beach took, only accepting digital comments. Some read them into the record, often implementing arbitrary word count limits. Many, including Long Beach, did not read community members’ remarks aloud and simply published them with the minutes in the days following the meeting.

The small border-city of Chula Vista live-streamed its meetings and has taken breaks in between items for the audience to call in and ask questions or make comments. It also reads into the record any comments submitted in advance.

Larger cities like Los Angeles made the pivot to online meetings seamlessly. A supervisor in the LA City Clerk’s office this week said it took the city about a week to cobble together a zoom meeting platform that could both satisfy public engagement and prevent hackers from hijacking the meeting.

One person posted a pornographic image as their user picture, but the city was able to immediately take it down, and disabled the option to post a picture, the supervisor said.

Los Angeles uses two different zoom channels, one that hosts the council members’ feed and another for the public to call in.

Before that it briefly used a tent situated outside its city hall to allow people to give public comment remotely. Other cities like Riverside have experimented with drive-up public commenting.

Room for improvement

The governor issued an order on March 12 allowing local governments to conduct meetings by teleconference. In spirit, the order offered flexibility for rules on where public bodies meet and what constitutes a legal quorum. It also amended the public’s right to weigh in on public business.

The ability for the public to speak is where the “rubber meets the road” when it comes to how democracy works, said David Synder, who has served as the executive director of the First Amendment Coalition since 2017.

“The right to directly address the body is a very important right,” said Snyder, a former journalist and lawyer. “It’s a much more effective way of making your voice heard and a much more effective way to provide the necessary oversight. Emails printed out in a board packet can be ignored. It’s not so easy to ignore someone appearing before you in a video or a phone conversation.”

Snyder speculated that cities that are only allowing digital written comments, which includes Long Beach, probably don’t meet the Brown Act requirements for access to public meetings.

While Long Beach’s recent efforts to enable a phone line for residents to call in and give public comment next week is an improvement, Snyder said the best practices are for cities to have multiple access points for residents to be part of public meetings.

In the last three months, with no live public comment, the City Council has debated some impactful issues, including requirements for business owners to provide sick pay and other worker protections, an eviction moratorium and how to solve a $41 million budget deficit.

Having a way for residents to call in and listen could help those who have no internet access or too slow of connection to stream city meetings from home. Some cities like Berkeley have even turned to broadcasting public meetings on local radio stations.

If they’re using software that allows for video streaming, the videos should be turned on, Snyder said. Webex allows for video streaming but it’s currently a preference by city leaders not to have their video functions turned on, according to the city clerk.

“That doesn’t strike me as a valid reason,” Snyder said. “One of the values of public access to meetings is being able to see how your elected representatives are reacting to things. There’s a lot of communication in seeing the body language, facial expressions…all of that is really important.”

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Jason Ruiz has been covering City Hall for the Post for nearly a decade. A Long Beach resident, Ruiz graduated from Cal State Long Beach with a degree in journalism. He and his wife Kristina and, most importantly, their dog Mango, live in Long Beach. He is a particularly avid fan of the Dallas Cowboys and the UCLA Bruins, which is why he sometimes comes to work after the weekend in a grumpy mood.