Last month, Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn stood up for the public and its right to address the Board of Supervisors in real time on the county’s management of the COVID-19 emergency and the ensuing budget and economic crises.
She was perhaps a little too polite about the whole thing. She would have been within her rights to excoriate her four board colleagues for shamefully, unlawfully and repeatedly excluding live public testimony from the three virtual sessions held since the beginning of the current health emergency. She could have expressed outrage over the shockingly inadequate April 27 report from the board’s Executive Office — six pages of worry over the baffling, futuristic technology (telephones!) needed to permit members of the public to testify remotely at board meetings. She could have called out the county’s unconscionable delay tactics — two weeks to produce a report on teleconferencing options, followed by another two weeks of waiting before the issue could be put on the board agenda for discussion on May 12.
But that’s not how Hahn rolls. Instead, she gently chided her colleagues by noting:
“It feels like we’re in a tightly run conference call, not a public meeting where we are really listening to the public and we deliberate and sometimes we change our minds … based on what somebody says in the public.”
That’s exactly right, supervisor. The board’s three sessions have been private calls — one-way affairs that allow constituents to listen in, but to be neither seen nor heard.
Pretty much every other government body in the state subject to the Ralph M. Brown Act — which requires discussions, debates and decisions about public business to be conducted in public with real-time public input — has figured it out. They use Zoom, or Facetime, or plain old phones to accommodate public testimony. It’s not always pretty. Some Los Angeles City Council meetings have gone on for 10 or 12 hours, and yes, some time is taken to deal with technical challenges. (“Speaker, are you there? Speaker?”) But they work it out. They get it done. They obey the law. They permit the public to weigh in on questions of crucial importance regarding orders that affect public behavior, public rights, public money, public access.
But not the Board of Supervisors, which heads the nation’s largest local government agency, with 10 million constituents and a $35-billion budget.
The board discussed that budget on April 28, taking note of the terrible revenue shortfalls that would require deep cuts to make up a loss of $1.3 billion in the current fiscal year and to eliminate a deficit of more than $1 billion in the year that begins July 1. Every dollar cut is going to affect someone’s job or services, so maybe, just maybe, members of the public might have some thoughts about which programs to slash and which to keep whole. Would they want to speak up for extended foster care? Or mental health services? Or the entire program still being hammered out to develop alternatives to incarceration?
The board also talked about lifting stay-at-home orders, considered a plan to revive the economy, agreed to send vote-by-mail ballots to every voter — in fact they took up a host of weighty, controversial subjects that affect millions of lives.
No disrespect to the city of Los Angeles, but L.A. County government affects more people, more money, and more government service than any California city and any county in America. Yet with all of its resources it can’t run a public teleconference.
At a time when necessity requires suspending the 1st Amendment right to assemble and sharply limits citizens’ ability to petition their government, the supervisors should be working hard to find ways to protect and enhance public participation. Instead, they seem to be relishing the opportunity to shut the public up.
The governor issued an order March 12 allowing local governments to do their business by teleconference, but someone quickly noticed that the law would require the supervisors to let the public come to their homes to testify. So a follow-up March 17 order made it clear that officials didn’t have to reveal their locations or allow any strangers to watch them speak in person.
But the governor did not waive the Brown Act’s requirement to accommodate public testimony. City councils get it. Planning commissions get it. School boards get it. Janice Hahn gets it. Why not the rest of the Board of Supervisors?