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California Might Make Virtual Meetings a Permanent Option

Two state lawmakers proposed a bill that would require all public meetings to have Internet participation options even after in-person meetings return. The bill also suggests requiring translators to increase access.

(TNS) — Among the few silver linings of a devastating coronavirus pandemic has been the emergence of a new way for local governments and school districts to conduct their meetings, one that allows more people to watch and interact with their representatives.

Through the convenience of Zoom and other internet-based video conferencing platforms, some people who otherwise might have been shut out of the public process because they couldn't make it to a meeting now can participate.

And to keep that system in place even after elected representatives return to their dais and people with stakes in their decisions fill the meeting chambers again, first-term Bay Area Assemblymember Alex Lee is pushing for a legislative mandate.

Along with Southern California Assemblymember Cristina Garcia, Lee has introduced a bill, AB 339, that he hopes will level the playing field for all citizens who want to be part of the process. It would require all meetings to have internet-based attendance and participation options that include closed captioning, as well as a call-in option.

"Prior to the pandemic, you had to show up at San Jose City Hall at 7:15 p.m. and wait hours and hours to make a public comment. And that is obviously not sustainable for people who have children, who need to work, who don't have transportation, so you really were limited in who could participate," Lee said in an interview last week.

"When we hopefully return to in-person meetings and people can still come and have a jolly old fun meeting, people who traditionally have been barred out of this process can call in, they can make a public comment that way. That's why it's so important," the 25th District assemblyman said.

The bill would also push for an expansion of language access services, possibly requiring agencies to provide translators at each meeting for the most commonly used languages in the area.

Supporters say such access is long overdue, and the bill is gaining endorsements from organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, and the Dolores Huerta Foundation.

"This hasn't been at the forefront of a lot of jurisdictions' priorities until the pandemic actually hit and people couldn't gather publicly, so there was no other option," said Emelyn Rodriguez, an attorney and the acting executive director of CalAware, a nonprofit that focuses on government accountability.

"But it should have always been an option, especially for people who for one reason or another can't be physically present at a meeting," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez, who serves on an ethics commission in Sacramento, said she feels remote access during the pandemic has allowed a much wider pool of people to participate in government.

A small but important element of the bill requires agencies to have a phone-in option so those without access to broadband can tune in.

"We know there are problems with access to technology, especially in rural areas," said Cecilia Castro, deputy director of the Dolores Huerta Foundation.

She said the bill's requirements could provide a "huge opportunity" to increase civic engagement for California's economically and ethnically diverse citizenry.

Currently, translation or interpretation services at many public meetings are governed by a hodgepodge of local practices. Many cities don't offer such services unless requested days in advance by a member of the public, and Castro says not everyone who might want to attend a meeting knows the process upfront.

"I think if government agencies are not looking into figuring out how they can better their communities by providing these translation services, then they're really doing a disservice to their community by creating these barriers that keep them from participating," Castro said.

Toni Taber, the city clerk for San Jose — a city with a history of high political engagement and packed meetings — said she likes the idea of making remote access permanent.

It would allow people with families or other obligations to watch the meeting while getting other things done, instead of "committing to being in the chamber from 1:30 p.m. until midnight" waiting for the item they care about, she said.

But she, like other city officials interviewed for this story, is concerned about the potential costs, which could be a major sticking point for some local agencies.

While the bill would require local agencies to meet certain requirements involving access and language services, it exempts the state from having to help pay for it.

"I will acknowledge we are not in a great budget financial situation anywhere in this country, but we all want to give people, especially people who have been underprivileged and underrepresented, more avenues to participate," Lee said.

"We all want the same thing, but how do we make it a practical reality? I think that just becomes a logistical negotiation," he said.

Paul Nicholas Boylan, an attorney and public meetings expert, said he's encouraged by the bill's ostensible goals, but said he'll be watching closely to make sure its language is clear and "unassailable," so governments can't interpret it in any way to limit public access.

Throughout the pandemic, especially early on, some local agencies took steps during virtual meetings that ended up hampering the public process, such as when Lafayette barred public comments after getting "Zoom-bombed" with profane language and graphic images from people who called in to speak.

Boylan, along with the ACLU, is currently suing McFarland, a city in Kern County, alleging the council violated open meeting laws in one of its decisions due to a series of technical difficulties during a virtual meeting, and a subsequent cap on the number of people who could attend another.

Overall, though, Boylan said he's hopeful for the potential of increased access through remote participation and better translation services, which he said governments have an obligation to provide.

"Could we have done all of this before? Yes," he said.

"But American governments don't make significant movement, significant changes, unless they're hit with a crisis," he said.

"If we can create a situation where people who speak other languages are allowed to participate in the people's business, in the political process," he said, "then our democracy is strengthened."

(c)2021 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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