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Government bodies and residents grapple with accessibility amid COVID-19 pandemic 

Atascadero resident Eric Greening is what you might call politically active. A frequent attendee and public commenter at meetings all over San Luis Obispo County, Greening knows the rules and regulations of running public meetings inside and out. And right now, he's concerned.

Government transparency is becoming increasingly limited due to measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including a statewide stay-at-home order. And what's most worrying of all, Greening said, is that no one is talking about it.

"There is a steady drumbeat of public pressure to restore economic activity, even in the face of some level of medical danger," Greening wrote in an email to New Times, "but I hear next to no pressure from the public for restoration of constitutional rights and open participatory government, and I find this silence troubling."

On March 12, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order suspending some government meeting requirements outlined in the Brown and Bagley-Keene acts, both of which were passed with the goal of protecting the public's right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies.

The governor's executive order authorizes state and local bodies to hold public meetings by teleconference without adhering to various safeguards included in the Brown and Bagley-Keene acts, like setting up a publicly accessible teleconference location.

In Greening's eyes, this could have serious implications for accessibility and transparency.

Some older community members, who often make up the majority of attendees at local public meetings, may not be as tech savvy as the younger population and will likely struggle to access and participate in meetings held on video conferencing apps like Zoom and Google Hangouts.

Low-income individuals face barriers getting to public meetings regularly. Now, with meetings being conducted virtually, access to the internet, a computer, a phone, or cable television—things many low-income individuals often have to go without—is crucial for public participation.

Then there are all the technical difficulties.

At a teleconferenced Grover Beach City Council meeting on March 30, a city staffer who had planned to give a presentation couldn't connect, leaving the city manager to present the issue on the fly. On April 1, several community members, including Greening, couldn't watch a Regional Transit Authority meeting because of a web browser incompatibility issue. Some Regional Transit Authority staffers were unable to stream the meeting, according to Greening.

But even if everyone had internet access and technology was infallible, Greening said there are still features in-person meetings offer that virtual ones can't.

"What is lost when we can't physically attend the meeting is the opportunity to make our presence visible to the decision makers; a full room has an energy that commands attention, even when many of the room's occupants don't rise to speak," Greening wrote. "Sometimes, speakers ask supporters of their position to stand, and lots of people standing up make quite an impression. All that is impossible now."

It's not just residents who are scrambling to adapt. Karen White, vice president of the Oceano Community Services District, is 82 years old and learning how to use apps like Zoom for the first time. She has a desktop computer in her bedroom at home, but it doesn't have a built-in camera and, since she doesn't feel comfortable going out to buy one, she'll be sticking to audio-only.

Her son helped her cobble together a home work space, but after teleconferencing into an hour-and-a-half long Five Cities Fire Board meeting on April 3, White said it was difficult to conduct a meeting that way. Taking turns, visualizing who was talking, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in unison—it was all a new challenge.

"For us oldsters, it is a 'brave new world,'" White wrote to New Times in an email, "but after 80 years I have seen a lot of 'new worlds.'"

Although Pismo Beach is operating with reduced staffing, Management Services Director Jorge Garcia said the city is working hard to make its meetings and records available to everyone.

Community members can find meeting agendas on Access Pismo, submit public comments via phone or email, and those comments will be read aloud at the meeting, Garcia said. Community members can also submit public comments during an ongoing meeting.

Regularly scheduled meetings are being broadcast on Channel 20 and on the city's website live as usual. There's also a conference call line that the public can dial to listen to a regular meeting live. Garcia said the conference line has a limit of 500 listeners at a time, which far exceeds the number of attendees Pismo's meetings usually garner.

"So we know that some folks don't have internet connections, or don't have computers, or don't have tablets," Garcia told New Times. "So we've been trying to create multiple avenues for the public to participate."

But due to staffing constraints, Pismo isn't filming its special meetings. Special meetings in Pismo have never been streamed, Garcia said, and community members can still call the conference line to listen to a special meeting, but such meetings require less notice to the public and are happening with more frequency locally amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a rough count conducted by New Times, three SLO County city councils—Pismo, SLO, and Grover Beach—have called more special meetings since March 1 of this year than they conducted in all of 2019. Pismo Beach has had five special meetings since March 1, all of which were at least in part closed to the public. Pismo only had four special meetings in all of 2019.

Garcia couldn't discuss specifics, but he said the meetings have largely been called to provide Pismo Beach City Council members with updates on the local COVID-19 response.

Still, Garcia said, if any community members feel there are barriers to their participation in government right now, they should contact the city.

The same goes for the county, according to Chief Deputy County Counsel Nina Negranti.

Gov. Newsom's executive order mandates that government bodies quickly resolve requests for ADA accommodations, which Negranti said the county is doing. For the April 21 SLO County Board of Supervisors meeting, the public can mail, email, or call in public comments, and Negranti said the board is aiming for videoconferencing capability so the board and staff members can be seen during the live broadcast of the meeting.

It's been especially challenging for the county to make this transition during the pandemic because county employees are designated disaster service workers. So Negranti said employees who would normally be fulfilling records requests are delivering food, setting up hospital beds at the alternative care site at Cal Poly, or manning the emergency operations center.

At the same time, Negranti said ensuring public access at this time is critical work.

"The public's interaction in government is more critical than ever during this emergency," she said. "Public interaction and the health and safety of our employees and our residents is a fine balancing act." Δ

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at [email protected].

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