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State Watchdog Says Virtual Meetings Should Be Permanent Option

“The Commission calls on the Legislature and Governor to update the state’s open meetings law — the Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act — to reflect new technologies and the experiences of the past year.”

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The Little Hoover Commission is recommending that California governments’ practice of holding public meetings online during the pandemic be continued permanently.

In a report issued Wednesday, the watchdog commission calls on the Legislature and the governor to promptly amend the state law known as Bagley-Keene to “require that boards and commissions provide public access to their meetings in both a physical location and a teleconferencing option.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order in March 2020 allowing state boards and commissions to meet entirely virtually, with no public in-person access, during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pedro Nava
Pedro Nava, chair of California’s Little Hoover Commission.
Now, “the Commission calls on the Legislature and Governor to update the state’s open meetings law — the Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act — to reflect new technologies and the experiences of the past year,” the commission writes in the report, titled The Government of Tomorrow: Online Meetings.

“Requiring that state agencies allow the public to access meetings electronically is a simple, cheap and manageable reform that will make California government more transparent,” the commission writes.

“Gov. Newsom has long been an advocate of using technology to make government more accessible,” said commission Chair Pedro Nava, who also serves on the subcommittee on remote work and state government. “He even wrote a book on the subject — Citizenville. Now the Governor and the Legislature can use proven technology to increase public accessibility and strengthen government accountability.”

In researching the issue of virtual meetings and public engagement, the commission reached the following conclusions:

  • Over 90 percent of surveyed agencies reported reduced costs due to remote meetings.
  • Approximately half of agencies reported better attendance by commission members.
  • One-third of agencies responded that they are meeting more often due to their ability to meet remotely.
  • Roughly half of agencies that have witnesses said it has been easier to secure high-quality speakers.

The commission urges Newsom and lawmakers to act before Sept. 30, when Newsom’s executive order expires and the pre-pandemic requirements of Bagley-Keene resume.

“With these two simple yet critical changes to Bagley-Keene, California can increase public access to state government while capturing the efficiency and cost-saving advantages of new technologies,” says Commissioner Bill Emmerson, who chaired the study’s subcommittee. “State leaders should not let our state fall short due to outdated statutes.”

The commission says two changes are essential:
  • “First, to ensure maximum accessibility for the public, require that every meeting be accessible both through a physical location and a remote option, such as a telephone conference call or an Internet service. Californians can walk in or log on — their choice.”
  • “Second, to capture the full benefits of online meetings — such as lower travel costs and a greater diversity of potential board members — make it easier for members of Bagley-Keene agencies to participate remotely. Current law requires that every location from which a board member joins a meeting — including a home office or a spare bedroom — must be accessible to all members of the public. That makes no sense. Members of the public have every right to watch public agencies do the public’s business; they don’t have a right to invade someone’s home.”

The commission asserts that these requirements “will not be onerous for state agencies — the past year has proven that agencies can easily and cheaply provide remote public access, even when they had no warning of the need to do so and had to transition on the fly amid state budget cuts, salary reductions, and dramatically changed working conditions. After the past 12 months, no reasonable person can claim that remote meetings are simply too difficult to organize.”
Dennis Noone is Managing Editor of Techwire. 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 the Northern California foothills.