A small bright side to the pandemic has been an uptick in participation at public meetings due to emergency rules that have allowed public comments via phone or other digital submission and some officials are looking for ways to make the changes stick.

Planning Commission Chair Shawn Landres and Councilmember Kevin McKeown are but a few of the local voices who have expressed a desire to continue virtual comments and meetings, and they may soon get their wish.

Landres penned an article in April that detailed the need for continued opportunities for remote and in-person, real-time public comment in meetings. In the months since, state legislators have tried to preserve remote access to public meetings post-pandemic through the passing of Assembly Bill 339 or 361, but the Planning Commission Chair said he believes it’s important for locals to hear from city leaders on the matter as well.

“I have heard about a return in person, I have not heard what happens if there’s a member of the City Council or the rent board or the Planning Commission or the Landmarks Commission or whatever, who says, ‘Hey, I can’t participate in-person. I still am unvaccinated for X-Y-Z reason, or I have unvaccinated members of my family and I am not going to sit inside a room for any period of time until. Right now, the city can say to that person, ‘Well, I’m really sorry, but you have got to be here.” Landres said, noting it is likely that when the pandemic is over, Santa Monica will not be legally required to provide remote public comment infrastructure. “But I believe that we ought to find that money in the budget because the truth is that it enables people to participate, and we need to make sure that we are going to continue to enable people to participate remotely. That’s just my view.”

Landres acknowledges there should be limits in the law since cities don’t want to have a situation where somebody gets elected to office and they’re calling in from Paris one week and then Dubai the next. However, like his peers across the state, he wonders what will happen to public servants who legitimately can’t return for health reasons.

“Imagine someone who gets elected and then gets a serious medical condition — not one that prevents them from serving their city but it prevents them from being in public,” he said. “We need to hear from the city that it is looking out for its elected and appointed officials; that it’s saying, ‘Yes, for those of you who feel comfortable meeting in person you will meet in person and those of you who for whatever reason, still need to stay on zoom the Governor’s Executive Order, allows you to and therefore, you will continue to do so. That is something that we ought to have that conversation about now, and not just, you know, have the staff think it through for us and then we just sort of are presented with this yes or no scenario.”

Other city officials recognize the importance of being proactive and not reactive. But with AB 339 still in committee, it’s hard to predict what will happen within the next six months.

Councilmember Kevin McKeown said Friday he is committed to continuing remote public access but noted his peers will need continued permission from the state to allow remote public access during official meetings.

“I want to take it further than City Hall and official meetings,” McKeown added, stating he’s actively pursuing continued remote public engagement options in other meeting rooms as well, like the ones in local parks.

“Community groups resuming in-person meetings may want to stay with a hybrid online format,” he said, “and I’m advocating for our providing broadband access and suitable video screens to make that possible.”

Other possible changes to Council chambers include the installation of plexiglass dividers and socially distanced seating. System testing is also underway in Council Chambers with CityTV and ISD to ensure meetings can be streamed live in-person with Blue Jeans and then with Call In Studio, which officials said would be an entirely new procedure for the city. As a result, training for the clerk staff is being scheduled in advance of a June 8 meeting, which is the first time Council and staff could meet in-person since the start of safer-at-home orders.

Nothing has been finalized yet, according to Constance Farrell, who said Friday, “The City of Santa Monica will continue to facilitate virtual public comment and virtual Board and Commission meetings through the duration of the Governor’s executive order.”

When residents return to in-person City Council meetings, the City will continue to leverage remote public comment; however there will be a transition period shortly after when there will be the option to provide both safe, in-person public comment and call-in public comment, Farrell added. “Public participation is essential to a strong democracy and public comment at City Council meetings and Santa Monica’s Boards and Commissions is part of that. We look forward to sharing safe ways to participate in-person soon and anyone interested in how to provide virtual comment can learn more at https://www.santamonica.gov/process-explainers/how-to-participate-in-a-city-council-meeting.”