L.A. County Board's Virtual Meeting Limits Public Participation


LOS ANGELES (CNS) - The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is set to hold its first virtual meeting today to vote on a wide range of issues related to the coronavirus pandemic -- with limited public participation.

The board's meetings had been put on hold for three weeks while lawyers and staffers worked out how to safely allow public comment given the early ban on large gatherings and the stay-at-home orders that followed.

The county settled on a livestream broadcast and one-way conference call for the meeting -- the public will have the opportunity to view or dial in to the meeting, but comments will be limited to email, mail or tweets to LACountyBOS' Twitter account.

Feedback that was received by 5 p.m. Monday will “become part of the official record” but no live testimony will be allowed, at least for now.

Brenda Duran, deputy executive officer for the board, said the supervisors want to make sure this first effort goes smoothly.

“In the future, we anticipate the need to explore other methods of live testimony,” Duran told City News Service. “We are continuing to look into this.”

A spokeswoman for Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who chairs the board, said she believed that more than 300 comments had already been received by Monday afternoon.

The business of the board has continued in the absence of weekly public meetings, with daily briefings on the coronavirus led by Barger. Those briefings in the county boardroom allow media representatives to ask questions by phone.

The board has the flexibility to restrict public comment because Gov. Gavin Newsom recently suspended several of the provisions of the Brown Act, California's open meetings law, due to the coronavirus and the need to limit personal interactions. His latest order allows for meetings via teleconference that allow “members of the public to observe and address the meeting telephonically or otherwise electronically.”

County lawyers did not immediately respond to a question about the county's compliance with that order and whether an advance email -- rather than the chance to chime in by phone in real-time -- meets the governor's standard.

The board is set to decide on a 61-page agenda that includes a broad range of business, including a hiring freeze on all but health and safety personnel; the elimination of the need for competitive bids for emergency shelters and other critical infrastructure; and removing Sheriff Alex Villanueva as head of emergency operations for the county.

Villanueva -- who has blasted the proposal -- is expected to attend the board meeting and will have the opportunity to comment, according to Duran.

That change in leadership for emergency operations was unanimously approved by the board on Nov. 19, based at least in part on the response to the Woolsey Fire, before Villanueva was in office, but requires a new county ordinance to implement. That ordinance will take immediate effect if approved by at least four of five members of the board on Tuesday.

It may be difficult to gauge the level of public support for that new ordinance and other board actions under consideration in a one-sided conversation.

Board meetings on big issues typically draw dozens of activists, union members and other interested residents who want to try to sway the board. Years of rallies and appearance by criminal justice advocates have been credited with helping to push the board to abandon plans to build a women's jail in Lancaster and a massive mental health jail treatment center downtown, for example.

On Tuesday, some of those same reformers -- interested in making sure more young people are released from county juvenile halls and camps to protect them from the coronavirus -- will have to rely on written statements to make their case. It was not immediately clear how others on the call, including members of the media, might gain access to those statements.

Technology may be a limiting factor, however. The county recently spent more than $1.3 million to reconfigure the boardroom, upgrading presentation screens and video conferencing capabilities as part of that work. It presented the project as expanding public access.

Photo: Getty Images

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