Water board votes against remote participation at in-person meetings

Santa Clarita Valley Water Agency

The Santa Clarita Valley Water Agency board of directors decided Tuesday to return to its pre-pandemic in-person format for its board and committee meetings. 

The agency will no longer livestream board meetings on Zoom starting with the first meeting in October.  

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order suspending public meeting laws – which allowed public boards to meet remotely – expires at the end of September. 

Starting in October, members of the public who want to share an oral comment with directors will need to attend meetings in person to provide their comment, while the option to send the board a comment in advance of its meeting remains available. 

A lengthy discussion among the 12 directors revealed clear signs of division between a majority of directors opting against immediate changes and a minority supporting a “hybrid” solution, which would allow members of the public to comment through Zoom just as they have during the pandemic. 

Supporters of the pre-pandemic norm cited cost concerns in their arguments against changing the board’s existing in-person meeting format. 

“When I think about the cost per actual public speaker served, it probably comes out to something well in excess of $100 per public member that might want to participate,” said Director Ed Colley, noting the hybrid. “That money is contributed by every other ratepayer that didn’t want to participate.” 

For more than a year, the board held its meetings over Zoom, where the public could watch meetings live and remotely comment on agenda items, due to the pandemic. 

Dan Mortensen, the board’s vice president, said framing the cost of the “hybrid” option as $0.18 per ratepayer was “the most generous way to look at this.” 

“A more reasonable way to look at it is the fact that we have eight proponents of this from the public,” he said. “We’re considering spending $83,596 on eight people who have voiced support for (remote public participation) so that’s a little over $10,000 per person.” 

Director Peter Orzechowski added to cost concerns on the issue of the board becoming an early adopter of the proposed technology – one “point tilt zoom” camera and supporting equipment, which would take advantage of the boardroom’s existing audio system, according to agency staff. 

“Maybe we can table this for another year to see what other agencies are doing,” he said. 

In a presentation, Cris Pérez, the agency’s director of technology services, estimated that the “hybrid” option would annually cost SCV Water just under $84,000, which includes the cost of installation, equipment, data storage and staff time for one year of board and committee meetings. 

Lynne Plambeck, Kathye Armitage and Beth Braunstein were the only directors to vote for the “hybrid” option. The board voted 7-5 to not change the in-person meeting format after the roll call on the “hybrid” option failed to achieve a majority. 

“This is not, in the scheme of things, a lot of money,” said Plambeck, offering to return her director’s stipend to pay for the cost. “It’s important for the public, in a democracy, to be involved with their agencies.” 

Plambeck also said she’s seen a growing number of new participants join the board’s virtual meetings during the pandemic. 

“We have a lot of new people that have come and begun to listen and be interested in our board meetings, and they would not probably be able to do that without this,” she said. 

Armitage agreed that the online meeting format during the pandemic has led to more public participation. 

“There is general acknowledgement that greater public participations lead to more trust and better outcomes for organizations that allow for that,” she said.  

Armitage said the cost of the “hybrid” option would be worth it if it means the public “feels like they can truly have their voices heard with minimal barriers and feel like that are valued stakeholders.”  

“There are costs that an agency doesn’t have to make, but chooses to make because it adds value to that organization,” she said of the “hybrid” option, while citing concerns about the increasing number of COVID-19 cases. 

In a compromise, the board agreed to form an ad hoc committee to explore the agency’s next steps toward broadcasting meetings online and accepting remote public participation. 

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