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Watchdog Panel Backs Bill Allowing Virtual Public Meetings Permanently

Assemblymember Bill Quirk’s AB 1733 amends the state law governing public access to meetings so elected officials could continue meeting via teleconference, a practice that began with the onset of COVID-19 restrictions in 2020.

The Little Hoover Commission (LHC), the watchdog agency that monitors and critiques state government, has endorsed an Assembly bill that would make permanent the option for elected boards to meet online.

AB 1733, by Assemblymember Bill Quirk (D-Hayward), is an outgrowth of emergency measures that Gov. Gavin Newsom enacted as the COVID-19 pandemic precluded elected bodies and the public from gathering in person for public meetings.
Pedro Nava is chairman of the Little Hoover Commission.
Under Quirk’s bill, public agencies could continue to meet via teleconference, as long as the public has access to the proceedings.

In a report last summer to the governor and the Legislature, the commission wrote: “California policymakers must act quickly to update the state’s open meeting law – the Bagley-Keene Act – to reflect new technologies and the experience of the past year.” Specifically, LHC urged “two simple reforms to Bagley-Keene: give the public remote access to every meeting and make it easier for members of boards to participate remotely.”

In its report, LHC said: “Over the last year, state boards and commissions have held meetings in which their own members participated via remote technology. Our survey of Bagley-Keene agencies affirms that such meetings offer substantial benefits to the public, including reduced travel costs, a broadening of potential board members and commissioners who are able to serve, and the ability to meet more often and in a timely way. However, the traditional requirements of Bagley-Keene – those that were in place before the pandemic and that remain in statute today – make it extremely difficult for board and commission members to participate remotely. The commission recommends that the Legislature and the governor amend Bagley-Keene to allow for the remote participation of board and commission members without required public disclosure and public accessibility to those locations.”

The “public disclosure” and “public accessibility” requirements were among the sticking points of the original law cited by LHC. In a briefing in December, Little Hoover’s chairman, Pedro Nava, discussed those snags.

As Techwire reported: “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.”

Quirk’s AB 1733 “would require all open meetings to be held by teleconference, would allow for use of teleconference in closed sessions, and would remove existing provisions of the act that require each teleconference location to be identified in the notice and agenda and accessible to the public. The bill would instead require the state body to provide a means by which the public may remotely hear, or hear and observe, the meeting and may remotely address the state body via two-way audiovisual platform or two-way telephonic service, as specified, and would require information to be provided in any notice to the public indicating how the public can access the meeting remotely.”

The bill has been referred to committee and is tentatively set for a hearing March 3.
Dennis Noone is Executive Editor of Industry Insider. He is a career journalist, having worked at small-town newspapers and major metropolitan dailies including USA Today in Washington, D.C.