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    Don’t let pols duck public meetings
    • July 9, 2023


    Government officials often seem far removed from the realities of the world as it is. With Senate Bill 544, introduced by Democratic Sen. John Laird of Monterey, state lawmakers are seeking to institutionalize this separation between the government and the governed.

    According to the author’s justifications for the bill, the crux of SB 544 is to codify COVID-era orders from Gov. Gavin Newsom  “allowing state boards and commissions the opportunity to continue holding virtual meetings without being required to list the private addresses of each remote member, or providing public access to private locations.”

    While anyone can understand the utility of virtual meetings — and the value in allowing members of the general public to register their comments and feedback remotely — government officials should have to face the public they claim to serve.

    A coalition of good government, civil liberties and press groups have joined together in opposition to Senate Bill 544 on these same grounds.

    “We oppose this bill because it would forever remove the longstanding requirement that public meetings be held in public places where the public can petition their leaders and other government officials face to face,” reads a letter signed by groups as wide ranging as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and the California News Publishers Association.

    Not having to face the public might be convenient for government officials, but governments exist to serve the public and public meetings exist to allow the public to interact and engage with those who ostensibly serve them.

    This might be shocking to many in government, to be sure, but that’s how things are supposed to work in this country and in this state.

    The coalition against Senate Bill 544 suggests very practical amendments that could make the bill viable, “To address these issues, we seek amendments requiring a physical quorum of members in one location open to the public, with other members of the body being able to join remotely, potentially on a rotating basis; guardrails around technology disruptions and public comment; and a requirement that the body provide the public with both call and video access, to ensure as much transparency as possible.”

    Proponents of SB 544 argue the bill is necessary to “increase transparency and promote public participation in state governments by expanding the pool of candidates interested in serving.”

    Well, if candidates are interested in serving on state boards and commissions, they should be willing to accept that serving the public generally entails going to public meetings. But even on this point, the proposed amendments from the coalition would allow people who for whatever reason can’t attend to attend, so long as a physical quorum is established.

    While many working professionals have indeed gotten comfortable with just Zooming in or phoning in to meetings, government officials have obligations to the public that they should fulfill regardless of how inconvenient it is. After all, no one is forced into so-called public service.

    The amendments should be incorporated into the bill. If they aren’t, the bill should be defeated.

    ​ Orange County Register