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Politics & Policy

City Hall is reopening: What happens to remote public comment?

While the rest of California swings into full reopening, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is wading into murky public meeting waters as it plans for a return to in-person legislative meetings. Up in the air is what this means in the long term for remote public comment, though Board of Supervisors’ clerk Angela Calvillo told Here/Say that her team would continue to offer a remote option until further notice.

We want people to be safe, and we still want them to provide their input to the board, so we are offering a remote option for the public,” said Calvillo, who noted that in-person meetings by the Board would resume at the direction of the Board President with consideration to Cal/OSHA and local health orders.

Meanwhile, her team has been preparing for a world where the Supervisors meet in person but continue to receive public comment from their constituents remotely. In early June, they ran a “stress test” to figure out how to run a hybrid public meeting. According to the office’s IT department, it was successful.

“Our technical team confirmed that users were able to connect without issues, and all systems were operational,” wrote the Clerk of the Board’s Deputy Director of Operations, Wilson Ng, in an email to Here/Say.

But could remote public comment become a permanent part of public meetings? Some San Franciscans are wondering if it could be done. And if so, how?

The answers to remote public comment’s future lie in how things shake out legislatively at the state level, how COVID-19 public health orders are implemented locally, and how the Board of Supervisors and other committees ultimately choose to respond to the policy matter. But two things are for sure: There is an appetite for this new form of virtual participation in the democratic process, and we may never be able to go back to before.

The Accessibility Factor

While the pandemic put a stop to in-person legislative proceedings in San Francisco, it arguably unlocked the floodgates for participation in public comment, making it easier for constituents to weigh in on civic issues even as City Hall shut down. Instead of commuting down to City Hall in the middle of the afternoon to voice their views, the advent of the pandemic has allowed citizens to simply call in from their phones.

While the Clerk of the Board’s office has not specifically charted how the length of public meetings has changed over the course of the pandemic due to remote public comment, “anecdotally, the length of the meetings have extended,” observes Ng during the Clerk of the Board’s open virtual office hours, which the office began as a way to keep connected with the public during the pandemic

I think it's brought more people into local government,” adds Calvillo. 

Our own live-Tweet threads covering public comment periods on hot button issues, like the Ferris Wheel saga, have stretched for more than four hours, and some of our reporters have reported sitting in on virtual public meetings as long as eight hours.

“It's just easier to dial into something,” Grow SF Founder and Director Sachin Agarwal told Here/Say. “You know, it doesn't interfere as much [with] your day-to-day stuff. And you can take a little break from work or whatever you're doing. But also, it just feels more comfortable.” 

While active in local politics through Grow SF, Agarwal had never given public comment before the pandemic and often felt intimidated by the prospect of speaking at public meetings. But the accessibility of remote public comment converted him into a more eager and confident commenter. 

“I feel like doing it virtually, I can just talk and just be myself,” says Agarwal, who was among the first to ask how public comment could remain “remote forever” when Supervisor Matt Haney tweeted in May that the Board of Supervisors would start reconvening in-person on June 15. Remote public comment has definitely given me this new channel. I feel like now I can talk directly to Supervisors in a way that's much easier than before.

The Ghost of Remote Public Comment Past: Prop. E

Interestingly enough, this is not the first time San Franciscans have contemplated making remote public comment possible at public meetings. In 2015, San Francisco State University Professor David Lee and his students authored Prop. E, which would have required public meetings, testimony and comments be made accessible through electronic and pre-recorded means and allowed live, remote public comment during meetings.  

The local measure ultimately failed at the ballot box, with 66.5 percent of San Franciscans voting against it. The proposition was supported by Assemblymember David Chiu and then-Board of Education commissioner Shamann Walton but faced opposition from the San Francisco Democratic Party and then-Supervisor David Campos.

The SF Examiner firmly planted its flag in the in-person camp in its “no” endorsement of the proposition. 

“We believe being physically present at a meeting, when possible, is integral to the democratic process. Showing up shows that someone truly cares about a particular issue and took the necessary steps to ensure his or her voice was heard. Providing people, especially those who live outside of San Francisco, with the ability to influence and impact The City’s political discussions remotely makes the measure unworkable and unrealistic,” wrote the paper’s editorial board.  

Yet public attitudes toward remote public comment may be changing in the wake of the pandemic. An informal Twitter poll by Here/Say Media found that 71.8 percent of those surveyed favored keeping remote public comment. When asked if he would support a ballot measure to make remote public comment a permanent part of local public meetings, Agarwal responded enthusiastically.

“One hundred percent. I think we have to keep remote public comment,” Agarwal says. “That's definitely the kind of issue that we would take up and fight for.”

What Are Legislators Doing About It?

But Agarwal and others may not have to put up a fight or even go to the ballot box to make remote public comment a reality. There are already a handful of bills circulating at the state level that would have an impact on remote public comment if passed and reform aspects of the Brown Act, the state’s open meeting law. 

AB 703 would allow virtual meetings indefinitely and remove requirements for public attendance at physical locations nullifying the requirement that public officials disclose their teleconferencing location (such as the address of their home or hotel room). AB 361 would allow for virtual meetings during declared emergencies or to declare an emergency. South Bay Assemblymember Alex Lee’s AB 339 would require public meetings in jurisdictions with at least 250,000 people to offer internet-based or telephonic attendance and participation options.

“When we hopefully return to in-person meetings and people can still come and have a jolly old fun meeting, people who traditionally have been barred out of this process can call in, they can make a public comment that way. That’s why it’s so important,” Lee told The Mercury News

Locally, District 7 Supervisor Myrna Melgar has proposed legislation that would establish a citywide parental leave policy for elected officials and appointees and allow a teleconferencing option for those on leave who are taking care of a recently born or adopted child or a child taken in through foster care. The Supervisor is also working with legislators at the state level to reform the Brown Act to allow teleconferencing options for elected officials and appointees on medical or parental leave. 

Supervisor Myrna Melgar is proposing a local measure to make teleconferencing possible for elected officials and appointees on parental leave. | Getty Images

“[Board] members will be able to take formal parental leave for 16 weeks without the fear of discrimination or the fear of having to relinquish their seats,” said Melgar when she introduced her legislation at a Board of Supervisors meeting in early June. “The Brown Act teleconference policy did not have pregnancy or childbirth in mind, nor Zoom, nor any of the things that we have today. … This issue is nothing new, and yet the progress moves so slowly because of systemic gender inequity. …. I look forward to more opportunities to completely transform and shift our culture for good. We cannot go back to the way things were.”

District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin meanwhile is partial to in-person public comment—“it's very, very different when you're there in person and you can actually see somebody who is crying or angry,” he says—but thinks a hybrid option would be the way to go as long as certain “guard rails” can be put around the process to prevent deceptive political practices such as astroturfing.

“As we find our way to the new normal, the hybrid idea is appetizing to me,” he said. “You can call in from your car, your bicycle, your bathroom, and it's super convenient. … We also don't want it to be exploited by multinational companies who can have somebody call in from the other side of the country.”  

Legally, How Could It Be Done?

So what would it take to make public comment permanent in San Francisco?

According to the city attorney’s office, San Francisco will no longer be required to offer remote public comment once the Governor’s order regarding remote public meetings terminates.   

“However, the state legislature or the San Francisco Board of Supervisors could enact legislation to require city commissions to offer remote public comment options in public meetings,” wrote the city attorney’s Deputy Press Secretary Meiling Bedard in an email.

“The Board of Supervisors could also adopt ordinances that require remote public comment to be offered in public meetings” and “make remote public comment a requirement for some or all meetings, depending on the contents of the ordinance,” added Bedard.

Or as Supervisor Peskin told Here/Say: “I think we can just do it.

What’s Next? Public Comment 2.0

Still, some regular public commenters are not quite as bullish on the idea. 

San Francisco civil rights activist Rev. Amos Brown gave his first public comment not long after the brutal murder of Emmett Till in 1955. He’s not opposed to having a remote public comment option—“It's not an either-or. It takes two wings on birds to fly,” he says—but believes an emphasis should be placed on in-person public comment once things return to normal. 

“We need to be engaged as a society, and too much technology is too much,” says Brown. “That's part of the reason why we have the problems that we have because we don't have empathy. We don't connect and communicate with each other. We need to come out of our silos.”

Local organizer, LGBTQ+ activist and regular public commentator Jane Natoli worries that a hybrid option would preference in-person comments over remote ones and adds that remote public comment is not as accessible as it might appear. She still hears the same people speaking up at virtual public meetings, typically “richer, whiter, older homeowners,” she observes. 

A study by three Boston University political science professors found that “individuals who are older, male, longtime residents, voters in local elections, and homeowners are significantly more likely to participate in [public] meetings.”

“Who is present, who can be there, who isn't there—a phone doesn't change that much, unfortunately,” says Natoli. “There's still a lot of access and privilege that goes along with being able to dial in to a meeting that not necessarily everyone is accorded. So let's not see this as some sort of panacea that's going to solve our problems with public comment.” 

Instead, she’d like to see public comment 2.0. 

“If we're going to keep [remote] public comment as an enterprise... then we need to do a better job of actually making it more representative and getting more voices there,” she says.

Others like Agarwal would like to see the user experience for public comment be radically improved for the future.

“Now you call in, and you hit star three to put yourself into the queue, and you have no idea where you are in the queue or how long it's going to take,” says Agarwal, applying an engineer’s mind to the problem. “Can you somehow ping me and connect me? How do we, like, radically change the idea of giving public comment?”

Calvillo acknowledges that the current system has certain limitations, like not knowing where you are in the queue, but takes pride in the knowledge that her team was able to pull together a fully functional remote public meeting system within a week of the city shutting down last March. Since the start of the pandemic, her IT team has delivered hot spots and aided Supervisors in need when their internet has cut out. Another time, when the power went out at one staffer’s house, the remote public comment system was seamlessly able to roll over to another staffer’s home in a completely different county, thanks to the savvy planning and resourcefulness of the IT department, “and nobody knew the difference,” says Calvillo. 

“We didn't skip a beat," says Calvillo, whose office coordinated with the San Francisco Department of Technology, SFGovTV, City Hall Media Services and the Board of Supervisors to put "together this system that works I would almost say beautifully, because we actually got the public to call in.”

“Rather than shut down, we always stayed open. We always remained accessible,” she says.

As her office awaits more direction from the state, Cal/OSHA and San Francisco’s public health department on what’s possible for public meetings in the near term, Calvillo’s team is already thinking through how remote public comment could be improved—“We want to field the calls like we're fielding the call from our family members,says Calvillo—and considering a couple of different public comment scenarios.  

For example, how to field in person and remote public comments simultaneously, how to make sure someone doesn’t game the system by giving public comment twice—once remotely and once in person—and finessing the logistics of running a hybrid public meeting. 

 “It's going to be a balancing act to have an in-person meeting in the chamber and run this system,” says Calvillo, who notes that such a meeting will likely require even more staffing to run telecommunications behind the scenes. 

Ultimately, she says, “the devil's in the details.”