On March 4, 2020, Governor Newsom proclaimed a State of Emergency in response to the COVID-19 public health emergency. On March 17, 2020, Governor Newsom issued Executive Order N-29-20 which included provisions authorizing local legislative bodies to conduct public meetings telephonically. Pursuant to Section 3 of the Executive Order, the regular meetings of the City Council have been conducted telephonically through Zoom beginning on March 24, 2020.
At the June 9, 2020 City Council Meeting, City staff sought direction from City Council on how they would like Council meetings to be conducted moving forward. Options for conducting meetings included:
- Telephonically through Zoom only. Council Chambers to remain closed to all.
- Hybrid - Council Members, department heads and relevant staff in Council Chambers with social distancing guidelines in place. Public participation allowed through Zoom.
- Regular procedures - Council Members, department heads, relevant staff and the public in Council Chambers with social distancing guidelines in place.
The Council directed City staff to implement the hybrid model for the next three meetings (June 23, July 14 and August 11). However, the Council requested the City Attorney to advise as to whether exceptions could be made to allow certain stakeholders to be admitted into Council Chambers for matters involving significant property or liberty interests.
Our office has reviewed this issue, and there is no legal basis to allow certain stakeholders like applicants to be present in Council Chambers but not the general public. If an applicant is allowed inside, but a member of the public is placed at a disadvantage by not being in the room, particularly if there is an internet glitch or some inability on the persons’ ability to participate, it would be problematic.
In November of 2004, the People of California adopted Proposition 59, amending the California Constitution to include a public right of access to government information: “The people have the right of access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business, and, therefore, the meetings of public bodies and the writings of public officials and agencies shall be open to public scrutiny.”
The Brown Act also provides that “All meetings of the legislative body of a local agency shall be open and public, and all persons shall be permitted to attend any meeting of the legislative body of a local agency, except as otherwise provided in this chapter.”
While allowing the City to conduct meetings telephonically, the Governor's Executive Order N-29-20 also provided: "All state and local bodies are urged to use sound discretion and to make reasonable efforts to adhere as closely as reasonably possible to the provisions of the Bagley-Keene Act and the Brown Act, and other applicable local laws regulating the conduct of public meetings, in order to maximize transparency and provide the public access to their meetings." Since the Governor's Executive Order N-29-2 did not provide for some, but not other, members of the public to be allowed into meetings, and there is no provision in the Brown Act so providing, the City has no ability to do so.