Governor Gavin Newsom signed an Executive Order Monday waiving the application of Assembly Bill 361 until October 1, 2021, when the provisions of a prior executive order that established certain requirements for public agencies to meet remotely during the COVID-19 emergency will expire.
AB 361, authored by Assemblyman Robert Rivas (D-Hollister), was signed into law last week by Governor Newsom. Essentially, AB 361 extends public meeting teleconferencing until January 1, 2024. Since last year, due to a previous Executive Order, local governments have been allowed to hold teleconferenced meetings due to the COVID-19 pandemic and could skirt around several Brown Act provisions, which allows meetings be more open to the public and allows members of the public to comment.
Among the parts of the Brown Act the Executive Order went around included giving public notice of the teleconference location, having teleconference rooms be open to the public, members of the public being allowed to address the lawmakers at each location, and post agendas of the meetings.
Held in place for over a year, lowered numbers of COVID-19 cases in the early half of the summer convinced Newsom to sign a new Executive Order ending all Brown Act limitations to end on September 30th. However, with the Delta variant leading to a rise of cases in California, and Newsom unable to rescind the Executive Order stopping the end of the Brown Act restrictions, AB 361 was brought up to allow local governments to continue to teleconference without bringing back the restricted Brown Act restrictions in most situations. Specifically, meetings that are held while California is still under a state of emergency and also have local social distancing, health risks, or safety risks, will still not to have to comply.
While some parts of the Brown Act will be brought back under the circumstances, such as posting the agenda and allowing members of the public to participate in the meeting, they will still be restricted by teleconferencing means via phone or internet services.
The big part of the bill was that if the state of emergency proceeds for more than 30 days, each local government must reconsider the exemption, especially if other circumstances change locally, such as a significantly reduced COVID-19 case drop.
Newsom’s Executive Order essentially means that if any local government wants to decide if remote meetings are still needed, they have to follow the requirements of AB 361, not through other means, making every local government be beholden to whether or not the state of emergency in California ends or not.
The future of remote local government meetings until 2024
“The order signed today specifies that for any meetings held to determine if remote meetings are justified beyond September 30, local legislative bodies must follow the statutory requirements established by AB 361,” the Governor’s office said on Monday in a statement. “Today’s action provides clarity for local legislative and state bodies about the applicable requirements for holding remote meetings.”
However, many observers noted that local governments are now beholden to the state on when to reopen public meetings, rather than to local conditions.
“COVID-19 rates vary wildly across the state,” explained Sarah Keene-Smith, a city government meeting organizer in Southern California to the Globe on Monday. “And you also have many members of the public who can’t attend online or don’t like it. Less wealthy citizens may not have stable internet needed to speak at these meetings, an more wealthy people tend to go in person to push for certain things and want a physical presence. We were right on the verge of restoring the Brown Act, but AB 361 and this Executive Order by Newsom pretty much ended that until 2024.”
“Everything depends on when the COVID-19 state of emergency ends. All of this bureaucratese boils down to that. Free and open public meetings won’t truly be back now until that is gone.”
The Globe also contacted numerous lawmakers about the bill and Executive Order, but have not heard back from them as of Monday afternoon.
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