By Jon Coupal and Angélica Salceda
Gov. Gavin Newsom has proudly proclaimed that “California does democracy like nowhere else in the world.” But as he warned, we cannot take our democracy for granted. The pandemic has changed how we do business: segments of the private world now operate remotely without the need for face-to-face interactions. But in a democracy, the function of government requires greater public transparency and accountability for its very foundation.
This year, a trio of bills in the legislature would take the wrong lesson from the pandemic and undermine these democratic values for the convenience of politicians – allowing public officials to engage in policymaking from private locations that are not identified, or accessible to the public, or even located within the state – without need or justification.
Our open meetings laws have been protecting democracy for decades. But even as early as 1855 California law recognized that “place is an essential ingredient” of lawmaking because the officers of government “ought to be found by the citizen who is in search of them.” Access to government officials is essential for the public as well as media representatives, whether the community is concerned about tax rates or fighting for our civil liberties. Throughout history, a key organizing tool for impacted communities has been to show up to public meetings to confront the public officials and to hold them accountable. Public access also ensures that we know who else is in the room when policy decisions are made.
During the pandemic, government bodies have been forced to strike a balance between legitimate public health concerns and the value of public meetings. We have seen some government bodies suffer as the challenges of remote participation resulted in breakdowns in the ordinary government processes. Public officials were not only secluded in private homes, but many also turned off their video cameras for an entire meeting, leaving their constituents and the media attempting to engage with an empty screen. In one notable example, a Board of Supervisors member routinely teleconferenced in from his estate in Montana, far removed from his constituents. This setup understandably fosters mistrust and suspicion about public servants and the bodies on which they serve. While it may be necessary in an emergency, it is no model for good government.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon faced this balance when he reconvened the Assembly for in-person meetings in May 2020 despite calls for remote participation, declaring “Representative democracy makes no sense without representatives.” Long a critic of the “corridor of corruption” in local government, the Speaker has shown he understands the democratic values of transparency and accountability. Many believe remote legislating leads to greater divisions and incivility, to say nothing about more indecorous conduct.
This is not to say that we should not take to heart lessons learned during the pandemic. In fact, we support reasonable accommodations for disability or medical reasons when public officials need them. We support principles of inclusion and meaningful steps to make sure our government bodies reflect those that they serve. We also appreciate provisions that would expand public accessibility to meetings, such as requiring audio and visual access to meetings and closed captioning. But the need for a public official to participate remotely due to pregnancy complications is not the same as the desire to avoid the public by conducting business from an easy chair or the private villa of a wealthy patron.
The bottom line is that these bills (AB 1733, AB 1944, and AB 2449) would improperly subvert democratic ideals for the convenience of a few. While most members of public boards are dedicated public servants, it is crucial to maintain a system with guardrails. Democracy can be inconvenient, but it is too precious to let it slip away.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. Angélica Salceda is democracy and civic engagement director at ACLU of Northern California.