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Virtual Government Meetings Should Continue, Oversight Chair Says

Pedro Nava, chair of the state Little Hoover Commission, said his organization’s research shows significant benefits from allowing state boards and commissions to continue holding meetings online.

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One of the unexpected benefits from the COVID-19 lockdowns that began last year has been an increase in virtual public participation in state government, according to the chair of a state oversight commission.

Pedro Nava, chair of the Little Hoover Commission (LHC), said in a recent video briefing that the state is experiencing multiple “benefits to the public ¯ and the public process” as a result of state boards’ and commissions’ ability to conduct business meetings and hearings remotely. Nava made the remarks as part of the Maddy Associates Speakers Series, and a video recording of his remarks and others’ is available online.
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Pedro Nava is chair of the state Little Hoover Commission.

Nava said the commission polled members of between 135 and 150 state boards and commissions about the effects of shifting to remote meetings; more than one-third responded. Among the findings:
  • 34 percent of boards and commissions met more frequently after the shift from in-person meetings to virtual ones. For instance, Nava said, Little Hoover met about once a month before the shift, and it’s met 22 times in 2021 – almost twice as often.
  • 58 percent of boards and commissions reported “a lot more public attendance online” than they had with in-person meetings. He said 37 percent of boards reported “somewhat more” attendance, and five percent reported no change.
  • Meeting attendance by board and commission members was up 51 percent after the shift to video meetings over the previous attendance rate.
  • 91 percent of respondents said their board of commission saved money by shifting to remote meetings. Nava said the savings were significant for Little Hoover, for example, which had allocated about one-third of its annual budget on travel by members and witnesses before the shift to remote.

Nava said that of the 135 to 150 boards and commissions surveyed, the average savings per entity was between $10,000 and $50,000 per year after the shift to remote meetings.

He also noted that not having to travel to Sacramento for board and commission meetings made the proceedings more accessible to those with physical disabilities and those unable to afford the cost of gas, meals and lodgings from more distant parts of the state.

Nava’s findings underscored the conclusions of an LHC report published in July and a commentary published in September in CalMatters.

Nava said one key factor in the success of online meetings was the pandemic-prompted suspension by Gov. Gavin Newsom of the state’s Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act, which requires publication of the location of at least one of an entity’s members, so the public may attend a virtual meeting in person. Nava said he and other members of state boards and commissions often participate in online meetings from home. In his case, he quipped, his home office is in his bedroom, a place where he’s not eager to invite strangers.

For these reasons, Nava said, LHC is urging the Legislature to extend the suspension of Bagley-Keene, which he said would extend the benefits of remote meetings. He said boards and commissions could choose to resume in-person meetings but should continue to make online access available.

“We are all social animals,” Nava said, “and I know that on the Little Hoover Commission, many of us miss that opportunity to actually sit and talk with members and just to have that personal exchange with someone. A pat on back, a hand on shoulder can be very meaningful.”
Dennis Noone is Executive Editor of Industry Insider. He is a career journalist, having worked as a reporter and editor at small-town newspapers and major metropolitan dailies in California, Nevada, Texas and Virginia, including as an editor with USA Today in Washington, D.C. He lives in Northern California.