LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors held its first virtual meeting Tuesday to vote on a wide range of issues related to the coronavirus pandemic — with limited public participation.
The board’s meetings had been put on hold for three weeks while lawyers and staffers worked out how to safely allow public comment given the early ban on large gatherings and the stay-at-home orders that followed.
The county settled on a live-stream broadcast and one-way conference call for the meeting. Members of the public had the opportunity to view or dial in to the meeting, but comments were limited to email, mail or tweets to @LACountyBOS’ Twitter account.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who chairs the board, said all comments would be part of the public record of the meeting. However, the hundreds of comments received by the county were not immediately accessible to media covering the meeting.
Brenda Duran, deputy executive officer for the board, said the supervisors wanted to make sure this first effort goes smoothly.
“In the future, we anticipate the need to explore other methods of live testimony,” Duran told City News Service on Monday. “We are continuing to look into this.”
The board has the flexibility to restrict public comment because Gov. Gavin Newsom recently suspended several of the provisions of the Brown Act, California’s open meetings law, due to the coronavirus crisis and the need to limit personal interactions. His latest order allows for meetings via teleconference that allow “members of the public to observe and address the meeting telephonically or otherwise electronically.”
A meeting that typically takes the bulk of the day was wrapped up in just over two hours without the need to accommodate public comment. During that window, the board instituted a hiring freeze on all positions other than health and safety personnel; eliminated the need for competitive bids for emergency shelters and other critical infrastructure; and granted wide-ranging authority for CEO Sachi Hamai to act on behalf of the board.
The board also approved an ordinance that designates the CEO, working through the Office of Emergency Management, as lead coordinator of the county’s emergency response efforts. Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who thought that role was rightfully his, accused the board of consolidating its power and creating more bureaucracy. Members of the board responded that the sheriff should be responsible for all law enforcement operations during a crisis, but not for coordinating the efforts of multiple large departments — especially during a health-care related emergency.
Other action by the board included a move to decrease the number of inmates and juveniles in county custody to protect against the spread of the virus.
Board meetings on big issues typically draw dozens of activists, union members and other interested residents who want to try to sway the board. Years of rallies and appearances by criminal justice advocates have been credited with helping to push the board to abandon plans to build a women’s jail in Lancaster and a massive mental health jail treatment center downtown, for example.
On Tuesday, some of those same reformers — interested in making sure more young people are released from county juvenile halls and camps — had to rely on written statements to make their case. In a statement to other advocates, the Youth Justice Coalition called on the county to petition the courts to release all minors with less than one year left to serve in a juvenile hall or camp and any minors whose health is compromised, regardless of the charges against them.
The board will not meet again until April 14.