When the council met just under two weeks ago using a Zoom format, the meeting was disrupted by a series of vulgar and at times racist comments and commenters, to the point where the city shut down verbal comments.
By the end of the meeting on March 24, the council was down to only taking comments via email and reading them.
That of course led to complaints. As Lucas Frerichs pointed out in a Facebook message: “We were getting zoom bombed left and right so it was locked since we’re not taking public comment, after it was closed on the last item.”
Closing down verbal comments led to complaints on Facebook where one person pointed out that “this is a reason why a full meeting should not have been attempted. There may be people who don’t get the word about how to submit comments, who may have just given up when they couldn’t join on Zoom.”
Although watching from home later in the evening, scrolling to the bottom of the screen was the email address for people to make a comment.
Councilmember Frerichs pointed out and said that “you’ve submitted numerous public comments this evening and ALL of them have been made (by yourself- earlier in the meeting) or read aloud into the public record.”
He added, “It hasn’t been perfect, but you’ve been participating—all night long.”
Two weeks later, the council will make a second attempt at public participation, with some revised guidelines.
As staff points out, the governor on March 17 issued an Executive Order that allows “the city to hold entirely virtual public meetings in order to comply with the shelter-in-place directive.” These changes are only effected during times when the city is mandated or recommended to take social distancing measures.
As laid out there are a series of less restrictive rules as well as suspended rules.
Among the less restrictive: council is not required to be physically present, agenda does not require locations to be listed, there is no accessibility requirement, and, “Teleconference locations do not have to allow (or be set up to allow) members of the public to address Council at each teleconference location.”
Among the public participation rules that are less restrictive: “Allow public to observe and address the Council by telephone or some other electronic means. Agenda must explain how the public may observe the meeting and offer public comment.”
One key rule that still applies: “City Council may not take action on, or discuss amongst themselves, any item of business without complying with applicable requirements of the Brown Act.”
For the most part, the biggest concern right now is giving the members of the public the right to participate during public meetings.
Toward that end, “the City Council may adopt reasonable regulations on public comments in order to facilitate the conduct of the city’s business.”
Importantly, especially with regard to the previous meeting, “The City Council may modify limits on public comment if necessary for the orderly conduct of the meeting; such limits must be fairly applied without regard to speakers’ viewpoints.”
These include limitation on the amount of time allocated to public comments, duration of comments, and “the total amount of time any one speaker may address the Council at any meeting.”
Staff points out: “Council may even ask speakers to limit comments to new materials and not repeat what a prior speaker said.”
For this meeting, members of the public may participate in two ways.
First, through written comments by submitting emails to council and staff. During the last meeting, through a records request, we learned that the council received more than 40 email messages from members of the public.
The second way is new and revised.
Through voicemail: “During the remote City Council meeting, voicemail comments may be submitted via the city’s dedicated telephone line to receive public comments. Staff will play the comments at the appropriate public comment times.”
Finally, council has put into place a fail-safe: “If disruptions occur at a virtual meeting and the disruptive behavior prohibits Council’s ability to conduct business, the Council may choose to remove disruptive participants, call for a ‘virtual clearing of the room,’ or temporarily lock the meeting until order is restored.”
And so, council will attempt for the second time to adapt to COVID-19 and allow for fair and robust participation, without allowing the Zoom bombers to take over.
—David M. Greenwald reporting