San Diego Now Most Restrictive in Allowing Public Participation at Meetings Among Largest Cities in State

by on November 2, 2021 · 9 comments

in San Diego

Amidst one of the highest vaccination rates in the state for any county, at above 80 percent, the City of San Diego has just become the most restrictive among the state’s most populated cities in limiting public participation at city council meetings. City officials have announced that public meetings will continue to be held entirely online with no in-person participation.

Back in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the City of San Diego went from in-person meetings to online-only. Since then, city officials have been slow to warm up to a return to in-person meetings even while local vaccination rates are relatively high.

In comparison:

  • Fresno allows elected officials and members of the public to participate in-person,
  • Los Angeles allows elected officials to participate in-person but require members of the public to participate online only.
  • San Francisco allows elected officials to participate in-person but require members of the public to participate online only.
  • San Jose allows elected officials to participate in-person but require members of the public to participate online only.

So, our fair city, the city in motion, allows the least public participation among the state’s five most populated cities.

And why is this? David Garrick, at the San Diego U-T reports:

San Diego officials say there is less urgency to revive in-person meetings because public participation has been robust since the meetings went online-only 19 months ago.

Officials say another factor in the decision is the possibility of a winter surge in COVID-19 cases coupled with the potential for a simultaneous local flu epidemic.

This is not satisfying critics, like journalist Paul Krueger, who says San Diego needs to resume in-person meetings as soon as possible.

“There is simply no substitute for face-to-face communication, in which councilmembers can see, hear and hopefully give their full attention to their constituents, who can in turn gauge the councilmembers’ reaction to their comments.”

“While it may be more convenient for councilmembers to attend these meetings at their office desk, via Zoom, it’s also all too easy for them to ignore what their constituents are telling or asking them.”

Since the City Council’s Rules Committee voted 4-0 last Wednesday to continue online-only meetings, the full council is expected make a final approval today, Tuesday.

Garrick points to the “new state law, Assembly Bill 361, which makes it harder for local governments to continue meeting online-only. In March 2020, Gov. Gavin Newsom gave cities permission to violate state laws governing open meetings during the pandemic by holding the meetings online.

The new law allows that to continue, but it requires cities to evaluate new circumstances every 30 days and possibly shift back to in-person participation. To limit meetings to online only, a government agency must determine there are “imminent risks to the health or safety of attendees.”

Tuesday’s vote will be San Diego’s first under the new law, which took effect Oct. 1.

Council President Dr. Jennifer Campbell has laid out a complex set of criteria needed for San Diego to revive in-person participation. For council members and city staff to participate in-person, all people attending would have to be vaccinated, social distancing rules would have to be in place and officials would have to determine it is safe based on the current hospitalization rate, vaccination rate and death rate.

Campbell would also require city officials to meet with the leaders of city labor unions to determine how the revival of in-person participation would affect their members. For San Diego to go one step further and allow members of the public to participate, Campbell’s plan requires a city “security team” to create a safety plan for the council chambers, which is located downtown on the 12th floor of City Hall.

City Attorney Mara Elliott issued a recent memo stressing that any vaccination requirement for in-person meeting attendance must be announced with sufficient lead time so the affected city workers or other participants can prepare for the new requirement. Elliott also suggests city officials and the council should consider whether to treat the meetings of other city boards and commissions the same as council meetings.

Sure, we all want to stay healthy, and god forbid anyone got Covid at a city council meeting. But why is the city so reticent in loosening up like the other large cities? San Diego may have one of the largest Democratic-majorities on a city council. And aren’t Democrats into more and more public participation? So why are they so reluctant to bring back some level of increased public access to the elected city officials?

The OB Rag has maintained for a number of months now, that because of the great limitations on public participation during the pandemic, there is a tendency for elected pols to carry out and approve schemes they would have had trouble doing under normal circumstances where the people, the public, could give them feedback directly and confront them directly for their miscarriages.

For folks in District 2, the two quickest examples are the Council -originated plan to demolish the height limit in the Midway and the Grand so-called compromise on short term vacation rentals between vacation platforms and a union.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Hank Ramirez November 2, 2021 at 2:31 pm

I, for one, am in support of keeping the meetings online if the concern is for the safety and health of the citizens of San Diego.


Geoff Page November 2, 2021 at 4:38 pm

Spoken like a true public employee, Mr. Ramirez.


Frances O'Neill Zimmerman November 2, 2021 at 5:34 pm

One would have thought the intimidating physical set-up of City Council Chambers downtown would be sufficient to distance our legislators from their pesky constituents, without banning the public altogether. The high-walled circular dais, distant from a low-down speakers’ microphone, effectively removes the elected official from the petitioner. Councilmembers are free to snack, look at their cell phones, joke with aides — all without undue public scrutiny.The architecture of that room has always seemed to me to be a physical expression of an undemocratic mindset.

We passed a Strong Mayor form of governance a while back and got rid of the City Manager altogether and the in-person Mayor who formerly had
attended and voted on the record at Council meetings. Now the Mayor is remote and unaccountable in his office and we’ve eliminated the public in-person, claiming Covid scruples. I don’t buy it.


Paul Krueger November 3, 2021 at 12:30 pm

Well said, and thx for your insightful comments.


Mat Wahlstrom November 3, 2021 at 10:01 pm

Also agreed. The council can easily hold hybrid meetings, with the council members physically there — or a quorum chosen by random selection broadcast at the beginning if necessary — and genuine public health protocols for in-person attendance followed.

As much as I distrust Zoom (or any other tech ), I appreciate the flexibility it allows those of who work to weigh in. But it’s not enough.

And I respectfully disagree that we need to tailor civic participation to cater the latest lowest common denominators.


Karyn November 2, 2021 at 8:09 pm

what does online-only protect at this point


Paul Krueger November 3, 2021 at 12:31 pm

Thx Frank for your attention to this important issue.


Douglas Porter November 3, 2021 at 4:09 pm
Frank Gormlie November 4, 2021 at 1:19 pm

Oh, you go to one board meeting and now you’re an expert? hahaha


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