First published in the Oct. 7 print issue of the Outlook Valley Sun.
In response to new legislation that allows municipal officials to continue to convene remotely, the La Cañada Flintridge City Council voted to have all local government meetings held in that manner for the next month.
Council and city staff members spoke at length during Tuesday’s in-person meeting about Assembly Bill 361, an amendment to the Brown Act — a 1953 law that guarantees the public’s right to attend and participate in California local government agencies’ sessions. Signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last month, AB 361 gives cities flexibility in continuing teleconferencing meetings as long as they adhere to a new set of provisions.
The council grappled with the decision but ultimately adopted a resolution establishing that all of its meetings and those of city commissions be held virtually for the next 30 days. The vote was 4-1, with the unpredictability of the COVID-19 pandemic looming over the decision.
“Personally, I’m comfortable [with in-person meetings]. I don’t want to subject the staff if they’re not comfortable,” said Mayor Terry Walker. “Some of our commissioners have said they’re not comfortable. … I don’t want to be accused of lack of transparency. On the other hand, I don’t want to be accused of lack of sensitivity to the situation.”
To invoke AB 361, there must be a proclaimed state of emergency (the one declared by Newsom in March 2020 in response to the pandemic remains in effect). Local and state officials must have also imposed or recommended measures promoting social distancing or a legislative panel must have found that
in-person meetings would present imminent risks to the health and safety of attendees.
Cities that do not invoke the amendment adhere to the traditional Brown Act conditions, one of which is that if a local government official chooses to participate remotely, that person must post the agenda at his or her location and the public must have access to that location.
City Attorney Adrian Guerra said the statute doesn’t identify how to implement AB 361 and if it allows for meetings to be conducted in person and virtually. He added that the city could “go into the gray area” and hold hybrid meetings, but City Manager Mark Alexander advised against it because he anticipates bigger audiences at meetings in the near future.
“Where it becomes an issue is in staffing,” Alexander told the council. “We have some commission meetings that are coming up in the near future where, in one case, we’re expecting maybe 100 people to show up and we don’t have the staff to do the hybrid approach or enforce mask wearing and social distancing and maintaining the safety for the employees that would be here.”
When asked about the possibility of broadcasting meetings held outside City Hall chambers to accommodate a gathering that large, LCF Division Manager Arabo Parseghian, who currently handles virtual meetings on his own, replied that it would require at least two more employees to “do this correctly.”
Mayor Pro Tem Keith Eich, who voted against the resolution, expressed concern that the council might be accused of lack of transparency, “especially at a point when we have a lot of controversial topics coming up.” He added that some stakeholders were unable to participate in prior City Council and commission meetings due to Zoom and internet problems.
“If we can do hybrid effectively 100%, [I] fully support it,” said Eich. “I don’t think we can. I don’t think we’re ready, and it’s not that I don’t have faith in Arabo to be able to make it happen. We don’t have the staff and so I like the traditional way of doing it. People can make their own risk assessments of coming in person.”
All council members said they were comfortable meeting in person, but most felt it wasn’t right to make that choice for city employees.
“I’m not comfortable in subjecting everybody else that may not have a choice,” said Councilman Jonathan Curtis.
Councilman Rick Gunter also expressed concern for the possibility of coronavirus transmission among constituents.
“I personally would really hate to somehow have a situation where we had a large in-person meeting and, God forbid, the next day find out somebody was sick and now we’re part of a super-spreader event,” Gunter said.
The council can rescind the resolution at any point or just let it lapse after 30 days and revert to in-person meetings that adhere to the traditional Brown Act requirements.