In early March, when Californians began to stay home amid the COVID-19 outbreak, many wondered how public participation in local government meetings would be possible.
Clarity came when Governor Newsom used emergency powers to waive portions of the Brown Act, the state law that requires the physical presence of elected officials or the public at local government meetings. This paved the way for local governments to quickly adopt digital platforms designed to allow the public to view meetings and participate in them safely from home.
While some cities are using email for public participation, most have found platforms that allow for live participation as well. Both L.A. County and the City of L.A. have held public hearings via Zoom and invited the public to call-in live during the meeting to share comments. The Monterey City Council even set up its own YouTube Live channel to hold meetings. While these new formats can sound a bit like a radio call-in show, virtual participation has been enormously effective. Platforms are showing hundreds of people viewing meetings live. And as cities become increasingly comfortable with new technology, they are taking on more ambitious agenda items.
Life certainly hasn’t returned to normal, but it is encouraging to know that local governments are moving forward with their important business and democracy is alive and well. Perhaps this COVID-era adaptation will make a permanent – and positive – change in the way members of the public engage with local government and ensure their voices are heard.