Beginning next month, Santa Monica City Council plans to invite the public back for in-person meetings for the first time since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring of 2020. The new format will not include opportunities for virtual public comment, as has become the norm over the past two years.
“It is a totally different experience; it’s much more personal,” Santa Monica Mayor Sue Himmelrich said of in-person meetings. Beginning with the reopening of City Hall earlier this year, council members have attended meetings in person, although up to this point the public was only able to attend virtually.
“You feel much more as if you’re in touch with the people you represent, and I really look forward to returning to it and seeing everyone’s face,” Himmelrich continued. “It’s been such a pleasure getting back to in-person meetings, and just seeing the people that you haven’t seen for two years. I think that this will help uplift everybody’s spirits as we move forward.”
The decision to resume in-person meetings came out through general consensus among the seven-member council, Himmelrich said, adding that council members were ready to resume in-person meetings even earlier, but were waiting on the City’s Emergency Operations Center, following professional advice, to give the green light.
“You will have two options: You can write [comments], or you can come to the meeting, but we will not be having the phone-in option any longer,” Himmelrich explained, adding that the City’s telephone comment system was difficult to navigate and was the target of complaints from both residents and City leaders.
“That gives, I think, a full range [of options] to speak to us — in person or to send a letter explaining views that will be considered by the council,” Himmelrich said. “But then the phone option — which is particularly awkward in this setting, where we can’t see the person the person can’t really see us — is not the best option available to us.”
Masks and vaccines will not be mandatory to attend meetings, but the City stated it recommended members of the public wear a mask when inside City facilities and that surgical masks would be available for the public at City facility entrances. During council meetings, a waiting area will be established to ensure physical distancing can be maintained.
The new in-person-only format is set to begin during the next regular meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, April 12.
Meetings of Santa Monica’s boards and commissions were to remain remote for the time being, according to a statement from the City; planning was ongoing for how best to move forward with their format.
A spokesperson for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) stated the same was true of School Board meetings. As of Thursday, March 24, there had been no decision made to resume meetings in-person; however, with spring break beginning in early April, the next SMMUSD Board meeting was not scheduled until Thursday, April 22.
“Board members have expressed an interest in returning to in-person,” the spokesperson added.
Beginning in April, the California Coastal Commission will be moving to a hybrid meeting format, with in-person attendance offered but virtual attendance still recommended, according to the Commission’s agenda for April 6-8. That meeting is scheduled to take place at the Ventura Government Center or can be viewed at coastal.ca.gov.
There was no immediate word as to the future of LA County Supervisors meetings. As of March, the Supervisors were meeting mostly in person (with some still attending remotely), but public attendance was limited to virtual only.