Social Distancing and Democracy: The Bay Area Prepares for Remote Governance

The San Jose city council met in a room of city hall with ample space for social distancing between each member on March 17, 2020. (Courtesy of the City of San Jose)

Local elected officials in the Bay Area moved to adapt public meetings to deal with the shelter-in-place order for millions of residents across six counties during the region's coronavirus outbreak.

On Tuesday, the traditional day for most county and city meetings, supervisors and council members announced protocols for how gatherings would balance the needs for public comment and public health.

“Obviously they are public in a pretty unorthodox way as we adjust in this post-pandemic world," San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said.

As local leaders scrambled to plan for future meetings, they laid out diverging plans on how those hearings will take place.

Liccardo and the rest of the San Jose City Council met in a side room at City Hall, listening to public comments being streamed from residents who gathered in the main council chambers. City security planned to escort 35 members of the public into the chambers at a time to maintain social distancing.

The Alameda County Board of Supervisors decided to continue meeting in the board's chambers.

"We will implement Alameda County Public Health Department-approved social distancing requirements, have hand sanitation stations available and thoroughly disinfect the chambers prior to and after meetings," said a spokeswoman for board President Richard Valle.

Other local governments prepared to reach a quorum entirely over remote connection.

In San Francisco, Board of Supervisors President Norman Yee hinted that Tuesday's gathering would be the last in the supervisors' chambers for the foreseeable future.

"During this emergency, we may also be moving the Board of Supervisors meetings and committee meetings remotely through video conferencing," Yee said. "We will return to meetings back at the Board of Supervisors chambers as soon as we feel appropriate to do so."

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Yee said the board was working on setting up remote public commenting, and previous guidance from the city directed remote commenters to email Board.of.Supervisors@sfgov.org.

The local decisions came after Gov. Gavin Newsom suspended pieces of the state's Brown Act, a law that regulates meetings of local government.

Newsom's order, issued Thursday, "authorizes state and local bodies to hold public meetings by teleconference and to make public meetings accessible telephonically or otherwise electronically to all members of the public seeking to attend."

The transition to remote gatherings was accelerated by Monday's public health "shelter-in-place" order requiring residents of Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties to remain in their homes.

Santa Clara's Board of Supervisors will meet on March 24, with supervisors and the public given the option to join in person or remotely.

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"For public comment we are working on having it by phone and/or electronically by sending in questions by phone [and] computer," a spokeswoman for Santa Clara Board President Cindy Chavez said by email, adding that public comment "may be a bit clunky the first meeting."

Contra Costa County encouraged residents to send public comments during next Tuesday's meeting to clerkoftheboard@cob.cccounty.us.

Marin County supervisors plan on continuing to hold their meetings in the Marin County Civic Center’s board chamber in San Rafael to conduct essential business during the coronavirus outbreak, the county said in a statement.

On the state level on Monday, the California Legislature took emergency action unanimously passing emergency legislation to help fund the battle against the coronoavirus, followed by a vote to take a break. The state Senate and Assembly will recess until mid-April, but this can be extended or cut short. Legislative leaders stressed they’d continue doing state business despite being away from the State Capitol.

KQED's Katie Orr contributed to this story.