Permanent solution needed to keep government meetings online

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This comment first appeared in CalMatters.

During the pandemic, the state government made significant strides towards a more tech-savvy and inclusive future. That’s because Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order temporarily allowing state boards and commissions to meet online – no physical location needed.

All this was to change on September 30, when these provisions of the executive decree (were to) be repealed. Now, thanks to a new law approved by the Legislative Assembly and Newsom – Assembly Bill 361 – councils and committees can continue to meet remotely for another four months, until January 31.

AB 361 is a welcome development, but California needs a permanent solution to lock in the benefits of remote meetings. Fortunately, the Little Hoover Commission, the independent watchdog body of the California government, has already proposed one.

As members of the commission, we conducted a study earlier this year examining the pandemic’s temporary changes to the state’s open meeting law, the Bagley-Keene Act. After asking dozens of state councils and commissions about their experience with remote meetings – and using the knowledge of our own commission’s experiences – we have found that the benefits of remote meetings are undeniable.

First, online meetings save money in California. Before the pandemic, boards and commissions used taxpayer money to transport their members to and from Sacramento for in-person meetings, often on a monthly basis. But since the remote meeting, over 90% of the agencies that responded to our survey reported cost savings.

Second, remote meetings increase public access to their government. Instead of traveling to see what their officials are doing at meetings, Californians across the state can easily watch and participate in the debates online from the comfort of their own homes. Over 95% of our survey respondents said they believe remote meetings have increased attendance, with most saying audience participation has been much higher.

Finally, online meetings make government more inclusive. Sitting on a state council or commission is no longer just for those who can afford to take the time to be away from home or work to attend meetings. Now Californians of all walks of life can participate and serve their fellow citizens.

To make these benefits a permanent reality in California, the governor and legislature must act – quickly.

Fortunately, there is a simple solution. In our recent report, The Government of Tomorrow: Online Meetings, the commission calls on the state to implement two simple reforms that will ensure that government meetings are as accessible as possible for Californians:

Make the meeting public, not the other way around. By providing remote access to all board and committee meetings, in addition to a physical location accessible to those able and willing to travel, Californians can participate in meetings at home, on the go or in person, whichever suits them best.

Remove barriers to remote participation. Once the law reverts to its pre-pandemic status in January, members of California boards and commissions will only be able to participate in homes if they publicly disclose their addresses and make their homes accessible to members of the public. For members with young children or elderly family members at home, this can be a barrier to public service. Removing this requirement not only allows more Californians to serve their government, but it makes agencies more diverse and inclusive – as they should be.

Contrary to popular belief, state government can be efficient and easily accessible to everyone. Remote meetings make this possible, and AB 361 is a step in the right direction. But California is dangerously close to losing its progression towards a more tech-savvy future. The governor and legislature can prevent this from happening, but they must act quickly to ensure Californians can enjoy the benefits of remote participation for decades to come.

Pedro Nava

Pedro Nava was elected chairman of the Little Hoover commission in 2014 after serving three terms in the California assembly. He had served as an assistant district attorney in Fresno and Santa Barbara counties and then worked in private practice and as a government relations consultant. He can be reached at [email protected]

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Bill Emmerson was appointed to the Little Hoover Commission in 2018 by Governor Jerry Brown. He was a member of the California Assembly from 2004-2010, served in the State Senate from 2010-2013, and was Senior Vice President of State Relations and Advocacy for the California Hospital Association from 2014 to 2018. He obtained a doctorate in dentistry. and a Master of Science in Orthodontics from Loma Linda University. He can be reached at [email protected]

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