San Diego will remain the only large California city with entirely online public meetings – The San Diego Union-Tribune


San Diego officials say they plan to remain the only large California city where public meetings are held entirely online with no in-person participation.

San Diego shifted from in-person meetings to online-only shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, and city officials have been slow to embrace a revival of in-person meetings even with local vaccination rates relatively high.

Among the state’s five most populated cities, San Diego allows the least public participation.

Fresno allows elected officials and members of the public to participate in-person, while Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose allow elected officials to participate in-person but require members of the public to participate online only.

San Diego officials say there is less urgency to revive in-person meetings because public participation has been robust since the meetings went online-only 19 months ago.

Officials say another factor in the decision is the possibility of a winter surge in COVID-19 cases coupled with the potential for a simultaneous local flu epidemic.

“I’m glad we will have the flexibility to make sure we can have our City Council meetings but also maintain public health, especially as the holiday season approaches and we might be facing a ‘twin-demic’ of flu and COVID,” Councilmember Marni von Wilpert said last week.

Critics say San Diego officials need to resume in-person meetings as soon as possible.

“There is simply no substitute for face-to-face communication, in which councilmembers can see, hear and hopefully give their full attention to their constituents, who can in turn gauge the councilmembers’ reaction to their comments,” said Talmadge resident Paul Krueger.

“While it may be more convenient for councilmembers to attend these meetings at their office desk, via Zoom, it’s also all too easy for them to ignore what their constituents are telling or asking them,” he said.

The City Council’s Rules Committee voted 4-0 last Wednesday to continue online-only meetings. The full council is scheduled to give that decision final approval today.

Councilmember Raul Campillo called last week’s decision “wise and timely.”

The council’s approval comes under a new state law, Assembly Bill 361, which makes it harder for local governments to continue meeting online-only.

In March 2020, Gov. Gavin Newsom gave cities permission to violate state laws governing open meetings during the pandemic by holding the meetings online.

The new law allows that to continue, but it requires cities to evaluate new circumstances every 30 days and possibly shift back to in-person participation. To limit meetings to online only, a government agency must determine there are “imminent risks to the health or safety of attendees.”

Tuesday’s vote will be San Diego’s first under the new law, which took effect Oct. 1.

Council President Dr. Jennifer Campbell has laid out a complex set of criteria needed for San Diego to revive in-person participation.

For council members and city staff to participate in-person, all people attending would have to be vaccinated, social distancing rules would have to be in place and officials would have to determine it is safe based on the current hospitalization rate, vaccination rate and death rate.

Campbell would also require city officials to meet with the leaders of city labor unions to determine how the revival of in-person participation would affect their members.

For San Diego to go one step further and allow members of the public to participate, Campbell’s plan requires a city “security team” to create a safety plan for the council chambers, which is located downtown on the 12th floor of City Hall.

City Attorney Mara Elliott issued a recent memo stressing that any vaccination requirement for in-person meeting attendance must be announced with sufficient lead time so the affected city workers or other participants can prepare for the new requirement.

Elliott also suggests city officials and the council should consider whether to treat the meetings of other city boards and commissions the same as council meetings.

San Diego temporarily allowed some elected officials to attend meetings in person last year, but that practice ended abruptly after a positive COVID-19 test.

San Diego County’s vaccination rate is above 80 percent, which is among the highest in the state and the nation.