LOS ANGELES – After seven weeks of working on a way to safely convene public meetings, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors met by teleconference again Tuesday, restricting public comment to email and mail and insisting it is in compliance with relaxed Brown Act requirements.
Other governmental bodies allow residents to comment in real-time on policy matters under consideration. Agencies like the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education and the Metropolitan Water District board have also conquered the necessary technology.
The county board has held three biweekly teleconferences in which only the supervisors and invited staff have been allowed to raise issues other than by advance email or mail.
The demand for participation in civic life remains high. Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who chairs the board, said 800 comments were received for Tuesday’s meeting.
Those comments were reviewed by members of the board in advance of the meeting, according to Barger. However, they are not made available to other members of the public or the media until minutes of the meeting are posted online.
The result is that some issues fail to get the attention that advocates or opponents typically count on. And members of the press have a limited sense of the arguments in favor or against a particular policy. The only hint of the level of support for any decision is that the names of those opposed or in favor are read off before a board vote.
Issues that aren’t on the agenda are not heard at all.
Supervisor Janice Hahn, who first raised the issue of public participation on April 14, said she was still uncomfortable with the process as it stands.
“It feels like we’re in a tightly-run conference call, not a public meeting where we are really listening to the public and we deliberate and sometimes change our minds based on what somebody says,” Hahn said.
A report by the Executive Office of the board in response to Hahn’s concerns was not part of Tuesday’s agenda, though a spokeswoman for the office said the supervisors were considering it.
The report makes clear that the board believes it is in compliance with Brown Act restrictions as relaxed by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Executive Order N- 29-20, an idea that Barger repeated at the outset of Tuesday’s meeting.
That order calls for local legislative bodies to allow members of the public to observe and address meetings “telephonically or otherwise electronically.”
“The public was provided telephonic, cable broadcast and web live streaming access to observe (meetings and) … public comment was accepted in advance of each meeting via mail and email,” the report states.
The Los Angeles Times editorial board is among those that believe the board may be acting in violation of the Brown Act, writing on April 7 that the supervisors “met and took action on a number of crucial items without giving the public the chance to participate in real-time. That’s a violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act open meetings law, even in the wake of a pair of executive orders by Gov. Gavin Newsom that loosen requirements to meet in public places.”
The county’s executive office disagrees, saying that accepting comment via email and email, making those comments available to the supervisors and later posting them online is sufficient.
“We have been advised by our counsel that this process is consistent with the Brown Act, as temporarily modified by the governor,” executive office spokeswoman Brenda Duran said in an email to City News Service. “The board has a long history of ensuring the public’s right to participate in meetings and during these unprecedented times, this remains a priority.”
Hahn said she felt the executive board’s report “didn’t go far enough” and that it spent more time outlining the negatives of various alternatives than focusing on the benefits of public access.
The report mentions concerns about participants “bombing” meetings with profane audio messages or video imagery and challenges such as outages, poor audio quality and dropped connections.
It outlines alternatives that include:
— reading in public comments — as the Metro board does;
— moderating public comments over a phone line — as public health officials do for members of the media during daily briefings; and
— moderating public comments during a video conference.
It may be hard for residents who regularly chat with business colleagues, school teachers and friends via Zoom, Skype and other video conferencing applications to understand the obstacles. However, the board’s audience is somewhat different and the report raised concerns about callers impersonating others as well as the normal hassles of line static, background noise and delays in responding.
Time spent in the meeting is also a key concern of the report, which notes that meetings could range from five to 12 hours with live testimony.
It would take four to six weeks after the board’s approval to implement a video teleconference system for meetings with “full security, reliability and usability functionality,” according to the executive office.
Hahn said she would present a motion at the board’s next meeting, scheduled for May 12, recommending new procedures.
Barger pointed out that the county’s stay-at-home orders will expire May 15, and it was possible that the board could meet in person on May 26. She later seemed to backtrack from that idea.
“That date is not in stone,” Barger said. “It’s all based on what public health says.”