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A transparent government and participatory democracy? AB 339 would do both

Open and transparent government has always been imperative to the democratic process, but it has become an even more salient issue in the past year. 

The COVID-19 pandemic shut down most in-person gatherings last March. That left state and local government entities needing to adjust to a new normal. And, importantly, it raised the concern among residents and advocates to ensure governments made accessibility under this current reality a top priority. Unfortunately, few government entities rose to the occasion, and many made it nearly impossible for residents and advocates alike to engage in critical decision-making. 

Assembly Bill 339 increases access to the public participation process by expanding opportunities for the public to join meetings, during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, via telephonic or internet-based audio-visual platform and through the clarification of how existing interpretation requirements should be implemented. 

As we wrap up Sunshine Week, a week dedicated to highlighting the importance of open government, Leadership Counsel is promoting AB 339 as a way to enshrine open government policies. 

AB 339 is currently in the California State Assembly, co-authored by Assemblymembers Alex Lee and Cristina Garcia and co-sponsored by Leadership Counsel and ACLU California Action. If passed, it would expand Californians’ ability to participate in local and state government from anywhere and by any means in order to be part of the decision-making process in our state.

Open, public meetings have long been a cornerstone of our participatory democracy. But the necessity for social distancing practices has ushered in a new era: often for the first time, Californians in some communities are able to voice their opinions in local and state government decisions without leaving the comfort of their own homes. 

In Merced County, Leadership Counsel works alongside communities like Delhi and Los Banos, which are 25 and 40 minutes away from the county Board of Supervisors offices. Attending public meetings for these residents was at least 50 minutes roundtrip. This is a huge impediment to participation, especially considering the fact that Supervisors meet in the middle of the workday on Tuesday mornings. Remote participation, however, has enabled community members across Merced County to voice their concerns with or support for local decisions.

Sheng Xiong, Leadership Counsel policy advocate, speaks during a public comment period of the Merced City Council meeting in November 2020.

“Being able to join meetings via Zoom has made advocacy in Merced County much easier, but there are still barriers, like the limitations on live comment,” Jovana Morales-Tilgren, Leadership Counsel’s Housing Policy Coordinator said. “We’re excited to see how AB339 can continue to improve the public participation process.”

Under AB 339, once meetings return to in-person, these remote access protections will remain in place, and folks who live in rural areas that are far from their county seats can continue to engage in the public decision-making process. 

But remote technology has been a double-edged sword. While in some cases constituents have been able to participate more easily, in others instances the reliance on remotely-held meetings has instead limited public participation. 

Before remote meetings, members of the public could comment on agenda items at local government meetings — giving them the opportunity to directly address their elected officials and practice an important component of participatory democracy. Since the pandemic forced meetings to become remote, however, there have been countless examples across California of constituents who want the ability to address their local officials, but cannot.

For example, in Kern County, while constituents have the ability to comment live over the phone at Board of Supervisors meetings, they must register the day before to do so. That means that if an item comes up during the meeting that a resident wants to comment on, they cannot do so in the very same moment if they were not previously registered. 

AB-339-Fact-Sheet

Relatedly, during the height of the pandemic in Fresno County, residents were struggling to get the support they needed from their local Board of Supervisors. The only way to submit a public comment, however, was over email — completely marginalizing the voices of all constituents without access to the internet. Additionally, comments that were submitted were not being read aloud, and there was no way to comment during the meeting — meaning that residents had no idea whether or not anyone was reading or listening to their comments. While meetings were webcast, there was no telephonic option and folks had no way to engage with their elected representatives besides via email.

AB 339 addresses these frustrations by ensuring that remote participation includes the ability to directly comment on agenda items, live and during the meeting, empowering constituents with the technical tools they need to communicate with those who were elected to represent them. Additionally, AB 339 clarifies what existing responsibilities governments have to ensure that interpretation services are available when necessary and that the public knows they exist.

The importance of these reforms cannot be overstated. And it can be done. The City of Fresno, the fifth largest city in California, has already implemented a robust set of remote options for public participation and provides interpretation services in American Sign Language, Spanish, Hmong, and Punjabi.

Isabel Solorio, a resident of Lanare in Fresno County, explains why: “We have never had the best access to our elected officials nor the best access to decision-making areas to provide our input when decisions are being made in our own community because we are a rural unincorporated area 40 min away from where decisions get made.”

She continued, “During COVID, this was only exaggerated and [it] further isolated us from information and resources. We deserve to be a part of democracy regardless of who we are and where we live.”

To learn more about Leadership Counsel’s civic engagement work, email Olivia Seideman at oseideman@leadershipcounsel.org. For other questions or press inquiries, email Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado at crdelgado@leadershipcounsel.org

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