In summary

California must act soon to ensure that residents can enjoy the benefits of remote participation in public agencies.

By Pedro Nava

Pedro Nava is chair of the Little Hoover Commission.

Bill Emmerson, Special to CalMatters

Bill Emmerson is a member of the Little Hoover Commission.

During the pandemic, state government made significant strides toward a more tech-savvy and inclusive future. That’s because Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order temporarily permitting state boards and commissions to meet online – no physical location necessary. 

All of this was set to change on Sept. 30, when those provisions of the executive order will be rescinded. Now, thanks to a new law approved by the Legislature and Newsom – Assembly Bill 361 – boards and commissions can continue to meet remotely for another four months, until Jan. 31, 2022.  

AB 361 is a welcome development, but California needs a permanent solution to lock in the advantages of remote meetings. Fortunately, the Little Hoover Commission, California’s independent government watchdog, already proposed one. 

As members of the commission, we led a study earlier this year examining the pandemic’s temporary changes to the state’s open meeting law, the Bagley-Keene Act. After surveying dozens of state boards and commissions about their experience meeting remotely – and using knowledge of our own commission’s experiences – we found that the benefits of remote meetings are undeniable.  

First, meeting online saves California money. Before the pandemic, boards and commissions used taxpayer dollars to fly their members to and from Sacramento for in-person meetings, often on a monthly basis. But since meeting remotely, more than 90% of the agencies that responded to our survey reported cost-savings. 

Second, remote meetings increase the public’s access to their government. Instead of traveling to see what their public officials are up to in meetings, Californians in all corners of the state can easily watch and engage in proceedings online from the comfort of their home. More than 95% of our survey respondents said they believe that meeting remotely has increased attendance, with most saying there had been a lot more public attendance. 

Lastly, online meetings make government more inclusive. No longer is serving on a state board or commission reserved only for those who can afford to take the time away from home or work to travel for meetings. Now, Californians from all backgrounds and walks of life can participate and serve their fellow citizens. 

To make these benefits a permanent reality in California, the governor and Legislature need to act – fast. 

Thankfully, there’s a simple solution. In our recent report, The Government of Tomorrow: Online Meetings, the commission calls on the state to implement two straightforward reforms that will ensure government meetings are as accessible as possible for Californians: 

  1. Take the meeting to the public, not the other way around. By providing remote access to all board and commission meetings, in addition to a physical location accessible for those who are able and willing to travel, Californians can partake in meetings at home, on the go or in-person – whichever is easiest for them. 
  1. Remove barriers to remote participation. Once the law reverts to its pre-pandemic status in January, members of California’s boards and commissions can participate from home only if they publicly disclose their address and make their house accessible to members of the public. For members with young kids or elderly family members at home, this can be a dealbreaker to public service. Removing this requirement not only makes it easier for more Californians to serve their government, but it makes agencies more diverse and inclusive – just as they should be. 

Contrary to popular belief, state government can be efficient and easily accessible to all. Remote meetings make this possible, and AB 361 is a step in the right direction. But California is dangerously close to losing its progress toward a more tech-savvy future. The governor and Legislature can prevent this from happening, but they must act soon to ensure that Californians can enjoy the benefits of remote participation for decades to come. 

_____

Pedro Nava has previously written about California’s mental health system, the state’s Rebuilding Fund and labor trafficking.

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact CalMatters with any commentary questions: commentary@calmatters.org