News

Palo Alto City Council in no rush to restore in-person meetings

City preparing for 'hybrid' system in which council members, public can participate remotely

Five of the Palo Alto City Council's seven members participate in a meeting remotely via Zoom on March 23, 2020. This "hybrid" system may become the new normal in the city after the state of emergency comes to an end. Photo by Gennady Sheyner.

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Vice Mayor Pat Burt was among those who suggested Tuesday that some of these Brown Act provisions now seem outdated.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."

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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.

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"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.

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Palo Alto City Council in no rush to restore in-person meetings

City preparing for 'hybrid' system in which council members, public can participate remotely

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Wed, Jun 2, 2021, 12:29 am

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.

Comments

Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 2, 2021 at 8:49 am
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jun 2, 2021 at 8:49 am

I'm no expert on this, but it does seem sound to me that the Brown Act should be updated and that seems like a good idea.

However, there are pros and cons in not returning to in person meetings. It does mean that someone is at the mercy of the internet and that can let us down, it also means that someone who is not tech savvy may lose the opportunity to speak. It may also be too easy to take part which is the flip side of the coin. If someone is really going to take time out of their lives to go to a meeting at City Hall to have their 2 minutes to speak, that shows the importance they have made to do so. If all they have to do is sit at home while doing other things perhaps they just want to get something off their chest rather than have something they really want to say.

Having spent time at meetings and having my turn to speak has been difficult to do, I have only done it for something I have very strong feelings. It would be so much easier to zoom in and out of a meeting, but would it have carried the same weight?


Jeffrey Lane
Registered user
Greenmeadow
on Jun 2, 2021 at 8:53 am
Jeffrey Lane, Greenmeadow
Registered user
on Jun 2, 2021 at 8:53 am

In many ways using ZOOM conferencing in lieu of in-person council meetings makes sense.

The council members are now free from direct eye-contact with the public and can easily avoid any possible verbal confrontations that may arise.

They can also mute dissent and carry on in semi-oblivion of the residents in attendence.

ZOOM conferencing will eliminate the need to commute to City Hall and PACC members can govern the affairs of Palo Alto from the ease and comfort of their homes.

They can also excuse themselves at anytime during the meeting whether it be for a quick run to the bathroom or for a snack.

Covid-19 related precautions and the variant mutations lend credence to this new practice as well.

We are now living in a world of high-tech communications and interaction where person-to-person contact is no longer relevant or even needed.

Like when was the last time you ever spoke directly to a customer service rep over the phones without ever having to go through a menu option?

The PACC menu option will now be your ZOOM login, mute button, and leave meeting choices.


Consider Your Options.
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 2, 2021 at 12:37 pm
Consider Your Options. , Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jun 2, 2021 at 12:37 pm

I think that making these meetings virtually available to residents who need or want that option so they can be included is terrific. However, I strongly believe our elected representatives should make themselves available by meeting in person at City Hall with the people . Face-to-face interactions are quite different. Some members of Council have gotten so comfortably disconnected from the public they no longer answer phone calls.

Virtual meetings are heavily controlled by staff and they prevent citizens from seeing each other--which is an important part of the public process. Getting people (including electeds) together in an environment where they can listen and respond to each other and work toward creative solutions and consensus is critically important. People who are not physically present for each other are far less likely to do this important work successfully.

Increasingly, I see residents yelling at staff and electeds. I see people who virtually step in to advocate for a personal point of view without participating in the whole meeting to hear other points of view. This is the most important part of public process. It is how citizens arrive at consensus in democracy. Physical proximity enables us to read expressions better, to be more responsive to each other. It also helps us FEEL the need to work together instead of just winning an argument. The well researched deficiencies of virtual meetings make it very difficult to get community consensus around controversial issues.

Staff and Council rar badly out off touch, and they don't even know it.


Consider Your Options.
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 2, 2021 at 12:50 pm
Consider Your Options. , Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jun 2, 2021 at 12:50 pm

To Jeffrey Lane....Yes. And customer service is truly awful today with very few exceptions among corporations who tend to use tech to push their administrative housekeeping to their customers and separate themselves from pesky service problems. "Fill out this form. Give us reams of private information, and MAYBE we will get back to you with a text message to help YOU solve the problem you are having with our product/service." Customer service has become customer abuse.

Virtual meetings are a slippery slope in democracy. Do we want our electeds and city staff to separate themselves from us that way? I can see why they might want that, but do WE, the people, want that?


SRB
Registered user
Mountain View
on Jun 2, 2021 at 1:46 pm
SRB, Mountain View
Registered user
on Jun 2, 2021 at 1:46 pm

Jury Trials have resumed in person for a while now. Locally elected leaders who are acting in a quasi-judicial capacity, should resume attending public meetings in person asap; and if that's inconvenient they should pick a different job or hobby.
Hybrid mode is fine for anybody else as long as it doesn't over-complicate or over-extend the meetings.
One big ethical benefit of in person meetings is that all business is done above the table and eye to eye, on zoom there is no such table nor eye to eye contact (council members can chat/text with each other, with lobbyists , with developers or leave the meeting all together or doze off during public comment).


PAUSD Teacher
Registered user
another community
on Jun 2, 2021 at 1:56 pm
PAUSD Teacher , another community
Registered user
on Jun 2, 2021 at 1:56 pm

This is a VERY VERY BAD IDEA. Using zoom to hold public meetings is anti-democratic and allows elected officials to not be held accountable by their constituents and the broader public. It allows public comment to be shut down and ultimately leads to elected officials thwarting the will of the people. It allows our representatives to run roughshod when they do not have to see the people, when they don't make eye contact, and don't feel the energy in the room. We must return to "regular order" if we want to remain a representative democracy.



Name hidden
Downtown North

Registered user
on Jun 2, 2021 at 1:58 pm
Name hidden, Downtown North

Registered user
on Jun 2, 2021 at 1:58 pm

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?


Rose
Registered user
Mayfield
on Jun 2, 2021 at 2:32 pm
Rose, Mayfield
Registered user
on Jun 2, 2021 at 2:32 pm

I agree with the majority of the opinions here. City Council meetings should be in person. Zooming might be convenient but real human contact is terribly important.


Patrick Burt
Registered user
Community Center
on Jun 2, 2021 at 3:12 pm
Patrick Burt, Community Center
Registered user
on Jun 2, 2021 at 3:12 pm

To clarify, the council supported the staff recommendation to pursue a "hybrid" approach going forward. That model would be basically a return to in-person council meetings with full in-person participation by the public, along with adding the ability for the public to participate remotely.


SRB
Registered user
Mountain View
on Jun 2, 2021 at 3:24 pm
SRB, Mountain View
Registered user
on Jun 2, 2021 at 3:24 pm

@Patrick Burt - In person for council and Hybrid for others? IMO Council has to be in person, there is no way otherwise to insure that city decisions are truly made in public (i.e. all above board without side communications and for all to see).


Patrick Burt
Registered user
Community Center
on Jun 2, 2021 at 3:54 pm
Patrick Burt, Community Center
Registered user
on Jun 2, 2021 at 3:54 pm

@SRB
Yes, the council would be in person with probably liberalized policies on occasional remote participation.


William Hitchens
Registered user
Mountain View
on Jun 2, 2021 at 4:41 pm
William Hitchens, Mountain View
Registered user
on Jun 2, 2021 at 4:41 pm

Why should the City Council agree to face-to-face meetings??? Online meetings stifle debate and dissent, prevent demonstrations, and keep the bureaucrats safe, warm, and at home. If you look at the USA today, powerful people are hiding in safety because they can afford it, while the rest of us are being encouraged to risk our health and lives at overcrowded and under-masked gyms, bars, restaurants, movie theaters, churches, schools, malls, etc. And both the alt-Left and alt-Right fools are pushing "reopening" far too soon. Seems like highly intelligent moderates like me once again are in a grave minority relative other ignorant people; because we're driven by "common sense driven by intelligence and advance education." Beam me up, Scotty. There is little intelligent life in the USA.


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