We have learned some things from this pandemic. One of them is that online meetings may be more inclusive.
For over a year now all agencies have been conducting meetings telephonically and online with really positive results. People who can’t usually attend, but are interested in public issues, have been able to participate and make comments. The attendance is more diverse and new issues have come to light. Professionals and working people alike who might not have been able to take a day off work to speak at a Board of Supervisors meeting or make it home from work in time to attend the City Council, school or water board meeting in their own communities were now able to access these meetings.
Often these comments helped to inform boards on various issues and shaped their decisions. In other words, this new, friendlier way of accessing public meetings furthered democracy and public discussion, the very virtues that have promoted the success of our country for over two centuries.
Now we have a choice. Will we throw away this new technology that has enabled increased public participation or will we welcome it with open arms to ensure transparency and inclusiveness?
Some agencies have said yes, others have seemed to say no. Our City Council has gone back to in-person meetings and eliminated all virtual attendance and participation. The Board of Supervisors, I am sad to say, has done the same. With a three-hour round trip in traffic and the expense of parking and gas or the commitment to an all-day Metro rail trip (due to a limited train return schedule), this will of course reduce the informed public participation that had been achieved during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Some statewide meetings such as our state Legislature and many statewide agencies have also so far retained their public virtual access. That means that you and I now do not have to drive or fly to Sacramento to participate in our state’s legislative process. This saves more than time and travel expenses. It helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pollution from that travel.
I am proud to say that the Santa Clarita Valley Water Agency voted to welcome continued inclusiveness with its July 6 board vote. While many, including myself, are ready to go back to in-person meetings, others remained concerned about various issues, including how we could continue to accommodate public virtual participation. We did not want to go back to fully open meetings until the public could be included remotely, if this is how they choose to participate. Many members of the public expressed a desire to continue to have access to public participation through our virtual meetings.
We have also found that virtual meetings reduced the burden on staff of attending long evening board and committee meetings to make a single presentation, taking unnecessary time away from their families. Commuting expense was reduced for the public and staff, another win for traffic and pollution reduction.
So as much as I would like our water district to return to open public meetings, I have to say I appreciate and voted to support the board’s considered approach. We will evaluate how to retain virtual participation at our Aug. 3 meeting and return to public meetings that hopefully will accommodate virtual participation on Sept. 7.
I urge the City Council and Board of Supervisors to follow our example and find a way to continue virtual public participation. It is good for our democracy and good for the planet.
Lynne Plambeck is a member of the Santa Clarita Valley Water Agency board of directors.