After more than a year of meeting over Zoom from the comforts of their homes, members of the Palo Alto City Council are in no rush to return to their traditional perch in the Council Chambers.
But with the COVID-19 pandemic seemingly entering its final phase and California leaders preparing to fully reopen the state for business on June 15, local officials — like their counterparts across the nation — are wrestling with the question of what to do once the City Hall doors reopen. On Tuesday night, as they considered the post-pandemic future, council members broadly agreed that virtual meetings are one symptom of the pandemic that they would like to see retained in perpetuity.
Like other cities, Palo Alto is facing plenty of uncertainty as it considers the future of meetings. Even as California is set to fully reopen in two weeks, Gov. Gavin Newsom's state of emergency remains in place, as does the executive order that suspended many of the traditional rules governing public meetings. While the new normal has made things convenient for both council members and residents, who no longer have to travel to City Hall to make their voices heard, it will become legally dubious once the Ralph M. Brown Act once again becomes law of the land. When that happens, council members who participate remotely will once again be subject to prepandemic requirements, including making their locations available to the public.
Vice Mayor Pat Burt was among those who suggested Tuesday that some of these Brown Act provisions now seem outdated. He recalled an occasion in which he had to keep a front door open during a snowstorm while participating remotely in a government meeting. The requirement, he said, "defies common sense."
"That was the law," Burt said. "It didn't go over really well with my wife, but that's the sort of technicality we're facing today with some antiquated elements of the Brown Act."
Burt is among those who are pinning their hopes on new legislation to address the new post-pandemic normal in which council members and residents are accustomed to dialing into meetings and some of the old rules — including the notification requirement — no longer apply.
Some of the bills are currently winding though the legislative process, including Senate Bill 274, which requires agencies to provide meeting documents in an electronic format to anyone who requests it, and Assembly Bill 361, which allows agencies to teleconference without complying with Brown Act provisions pertaining to physical access and quorum requirements during local emergencies. Assembly Bill 703, which sought to remove some of the existing noticing requirements pertaining to teleconferencing, is no longer advancing in the current legislative year.
"Frankly, I think the Legislature is dragging their feet on something that's a real urgent matter. … All city governments and local governments are needing some kind of a legislative change," Burt said.
But even though the legislative picture remains hazy, council members made it clear on Tuesday that they have no desire to return to the old ways. While the council did not take any votes, council member Alison Cormack was among those who favored retaining the ability of council members and other participants to attend remotely.
Cormack recalled the prepandemic days in which she would have to get a babysitter to go to City Hall, where she would often have to wait four or five hours for her item. Retaining the option of remote participation solves the "babysitter problem," she said.
"I know for a fact that parents are now able to stay at home, feed their kids dinner, give them their baths, read them their books and pop on when they need to," Cormack said. "I think we really benefitted from having more people be able to participate."
Council member Greer Stone concurred and cited the high number of students who have addressed the council during meetings on subjects such as climate change, housing and the need for a new skate park.
"We've seen so many people be able to participate this year, who have traditionally been left out," Stone said. "I think just for example the amount of student engagement we've seen over the past several months has been pretty incredible."
City staff share the council's fondness for remote participation. Darren Numoto, the city's interim chief information officer, said staff is preparing for a postpandemic scenario in which local officials and residents would retain the ability to participate either in person or remotely. And City Manager Ed Shikada told this news organization that virtual meetings make things easier for city staff, who can limit their participation to those items where their involvement is needed, as well as save the city money when consultants are involved.
"We're not paying for consultants to travel from around the country to show up at meetings," Shikada said. "That adds value."
Shikada said one issue that the city is considering is the extent to which remote meetings create a barrier for residents who cannot get online. To date, however, he had not heard from residents who have encountered that problem and have been disenfranchised by technological limitations.
To the extent that the city can address issues of accessibility, Shikada said, "the more remote access we can provide the better."
Regardless of what the state Legislation does, the council is preparing to reconsider its own meeting policies, including one that limits council members' ability to participate remotely to three times per year. Even so, Mayor Tom DuBois suggested Monday that he would still like to see most council members to attend meetings in person once sanctions lift.
"We should encourage council members to come to meetings," DuBois said.
Most of his colleagues favored allowing more flexibility, for council members and the public alike. Burt was among them, even as he acknowledged that changing the way the council conducts its meetings will involve a learning curve.
"I think we need to go into this with eyes wide open," Burt said. "There will be some tradeoffs, some things will be better, some worse, but I think in the net, it's a net positive."
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.