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Public participation in question: Some local school boards end remote access to meetings

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In a file photo, Laura Smith offers a comment remotely through Zoom during a Fairfax School District town hall meeting held in Fairfax Junior High's gymnasium. Fairfax has decided to end remote access to its meetings. In the foreground, Maria Hernandez, a community member, holds a sign.

At the beginning of the pandemic, government boards quickly switched to Zoom, phones and other remote options to continue doing their business safely.

This meant that the business of government was being streamed through phones, laptops and tablets directly into homes in a way that it hadn't before. It was much easier to tune in, and it was easier to offer public comment.

"This pandemic has brought on a lot of heartache, but one positive thing was the fact that, to my knowledge, because of Zoom we have had the highest attendance of board meetings ever," Melissa Brown told the board of the Fairfax School District on Thursday night.

Brown, a reading specialist at Zephyr Lane Elementary School, implored the board to not to end all remote access to meetings. She said the district's recently announced decision would be a "huge mistake."

Fairfax is one of a handful of local school districts that have recently ended remote access to meetings. Even after the district began holding meetings in person in spring, the public was able to attend its meetings and offer comments over Zoom — and many did. This week, the district put a notice on its site stating that would no longer happen. 

"Members of the public wishing to observe the meeting or comment on matters within the Board’s jurisdiction will need to attend the meeting in person to do so, at the time and place stated on the meeting agenda," the statement said.

Greenfield Union, the third largest elementary district in Kern County, put a nearly identical statement on its website on Oct. 8.

Brown noted that families and employees are not able to attend meetings in person for many reasons, including the fact that they are in quarantine for COVID-19 or that they have opted for independent study precisely to avoid the risks of in-person events.

"Why would we stop using Zoom to communicate the most important decisions made in our district to those unable to attend in person?" she asked. 

Edison School District did not respond to a request for comment, but its agendas as of Sept. 27 no longer include Zoom links. 

"As the pandemic has waned, you've seen agencies dialing back on providing remote access, because they’re not technically required to," said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, which advocates for free speech, more open and accountable government, and public participation in government business.

Assemblyman Alex Lee, D-San Jose, said pandemic-era remote access allowed so many more people to be engaged with government. It allowed busy parents, the disabled and those without transportation to have access to government.

"That was revolutionary in the 21st century," Lee said. 

He authored AB 339 as a way to preserve what he saw as a huge achievement for participatory democracy. The original version applied to all government bodies, including at state, city and school levels. The final version that passed through the California Legislature was a big compromise, he said. It applied to city councils or a county board of supervisors in jurisdictions with more than 250,000 people. 

"I was astounded how much people pushed back," he said. "We thought it was a common-sense measure."

Lee said it was a chance for California to be a leader in providing public access at meetings in the same way it was a leader in expanding voting access during the pandemic.

Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed it. He wrote in a statement that it "limits flexibility and costs for the affected local jurisdictions trying to manage their meetings." He also took issue with the fact that only some boards would be required to provide teleconference options for the public.

"While I appreciate the author's intent to increase transparency and public participation in certain local government meetings, this bill would set a precedent of tying public access requirements to the population of jurisdictions," he wrote. "This patchwork approach may lead to public confusion."

Lee said that right now public access at board meetings in the state is a patchwork. Some boards are continuing to offer a hybrid of in-person and remote access.

That's what it looks like among school boards in Kern County. The largest school districts in the county — Kern Community College District, Kern High School District, Bakersfield City School District and Panama-Buena Vista Union School District — are continuing to stream their meetings live and also archive them for a varying period of time. KCCD and BCSD have continued to specifically outline ways for the public to call or Zoom in and participate remotely.

Local school boards that have made their changes have not offered a rationale for their choices.

"Providing remote access to the public is the right thing to do — and agencies demonstrated through the pandemic that it's eminently doable," said Snyder. "There's no reason to stop it now, other than to signal to the public that their access is not welcome, a message I would hope most school boards would not want to send."

The issue of improving public access is one that has dogged the board of the Fairfax School District. A Kern County grand jury released a list of recommendations for the board in May. One was to "immediately work on methods for conducting meetings that allow for easier public access."

Emma Gallegos can be reached at 661-395-7394.