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Home, hall or hybrid? La Jolla groups are in various stages of returning to in-person meetings

The La Jolla Town Council has been meeting in a hybrid in-person/online format.
The La Jolla Town Council has been meeting in a hybrid in-person/online format, while most other La Jolla community groups have stayed online only.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Having met, in most cases, exclusively online for the past 2½ years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, La Jolla’s “alphabet soup” of acronymed civic groups are mulling a return to in-person meetings.

Some already have begun to take up a presence at the La Jolla Recreation Center, La Jolla/Riford Library and other spots, while others have remained online and some have explored a hybrid option.

But with the COVID-related state of emergency declared by California Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2020 and renewed in 2021 coming to a close at the end of February, all groups that are governed by the state’s Brown Act but are still meeting remotely will have to decide on an in-person location soon. The Brown Act is a 1953 law that spells out how legislative and some civic organizations must meet to enable public access.

The Brown Act requirement for in-person meetings was waived during the state of emergency by Assembly Bill 361.

To be or not to be online?

In light of the state of emergency coming to an end, the La Jolla Community Planning Association, which has met exclusively online since March 2020, took up discussion of its future at its virtual meeting Nov. 3.

LJCPA President Diane Kane said the technology that allows remote meetings — namely Zoom — has “been very successful at boosting attendance at public meetings. We may lose the audience that has found Zoom to be very convenient if we go back to solely in person.”

She also cited the ability “to jump in and out” rather than “drive down to a meeting and sit through hours of things they may not be interested in.”

However, continuing exclusively on Zoom after the state of emergency ends will not meet the requirements for public meetings under the Brown Act, Kane said.

As an option, she said, the board could consider hybrid meetings (in person and broadcast online) but said “we don’t have the technology to handle that comfortably.”

LJCPA trustee Ray Weiss said “you need cameras, microphones and people to set it up.”

Kane said she has been meeting with representatives of other community groups to see what they have done and what LJCPA’s options might be. Kane said she has spoken with staff at the La Jolla/Riford Library and other local venues that might have the technology and acoustics suitable for hybrid meetings, with little success.

“We have been using the Rec Center, but the technology is not good,” Kane said. She also noted plans for a renovation that would close the Rec Center in coming years.

Kane questioned whether the Brown Act could be amended “to allow for technology that was not envisioned when the Brown Act was passed.”

The La Jolla Community Planning Association has been meeting exclusively online since March 2020.
The La Jolla Community Planning Association and many other local groups have been meeting exclusively online since March 2020.
(Screenshot by Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Weiss said the key is having enough equipment and opportunities for people participating online to feel included. “I like the idea of hybrid meetings and having them in [places] that are big enough for people to separate if they still have misgivings about COVID, so there are a lot of factors here.”

Former trustee Jim Fitzgerald argued that presentations are easier with a virtual format. “When we have applicants come … with drawings, the trustees and the public get a much better sense of detail because of what they can bring to the meeting electronically.” The alternative, he said, is “easels and storyboards.”

Some questioned whether local schools and venues such as the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center could be used for meetings, since they have adequate technology for an online component.

“The bottom line is that we have to wait and see what the governor’s office is going to allow,” LJCPA trustee Jodi Rudick said.

Kane said the Nov. 3 discussion was the first of many that will take place in coming months.

The day after the LJCPA meeting, the Visioning Committee of the La Jolla Community Recreation Group — which oversees the Rec Center — discussed the immediate need for an in-person meeting location that can accommodate online attendance.

The CRG Visioning Committee, of which Kane is a member, is responsible for the design and execution of the planned Rec Center renovation.

Kane said committee members agreed to try to hasten updates to the Rec Center’s technology ahead of the renovation.

“We need to update the Rec Center now, because we don’t want to lose the audience of the community using the Rec Center,” Kane told the La Jolla Light after the meeting.

She said La Jolla architect Trace Wilson, lead designer on the Rec Center plans, and other committee members will look at nearby facilities such as the conference center at The Bishop’s School to see what technology updates would be required at the Rec Center and at what cost.

CRG Chairwoman Mary Coakley Munk, also a Visioning Committee member, told the Light that the CRG would hear the committee’s ideas for a speedy update at its December meeting.

Coakley Munk noted that when La Jolla philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps established the Rec Center in 1915, Scripps hoped it would be “a place where ordinary people could meet and speak their minds without fear of harassment from civil authorities,” as quoted in Molly McClain’s book “Ellen Browning Scripps: New Money and American Philanthropy.”

The CRG, which also has met exclusively online since the pandemic began, discussed last month whether to resume in-person meetings, with members split and agreeing to continue the discussion in December.

The La Jolla Traffic & Transportation Board, a subcommittee of LJCPA, has been meeting only online, and Chairman Brian Earley told the Light that he has not asked his fellow board members for feedback yet. He added that he will wait to see what LJCPA decides.

Andy Fotsch, chairman of the La Jolla Shores Permit Review Committee, which also is under the LJCPA umbrella, told the Light that the committee will follow LJCPA recommendations but added that “a lot of members, myself included, have enjoyed the flexibility of an online ... meeting.”

Leaders of the La Jolla Development Review and Planned District Ordinance committees, also formed under LJCPA, did not respond to the Light’s requests for comment.

The La Jolla Shores Association has met exclusively online since the pandemic began. President Janie Emerson said the board hasn’t discussed what to do once the state of emergency ends but added that she’d be surprised if Brown Act accommodations — and hybrid meetings — disappear.

Emerson said she believes a hybrid model is the best direction forward, saying an exclusively in-person format leaves out many people, such as parents with child-care obstacles and those with inflexible work schedules.

“I’d much rather have people be involved” however they can, Emerson said. She added that a once- or twice-yearly reception or special presentation only in person would be “a good mix of things.”

To those who say hybrid meetings aren’t effective, Emerson noted that the San Diego City Council and the California Coastal Commission use a mixed format.

Leaders of the La Jolla Coastal Access and Parking Board and the Bird Rock Community Council, both of which have met only online since 2020, did not respond to requests for comment.

In person is ‘intimate’

The La Jolla Village Merchants Association has been meeting in person for months.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

The La Jolla Village Merchants Association has been meeting in person for months without an online option. Rudick — the group’s executive director — said at the LJCPA meeting that “we find the experience to be much more intimate; we are able to read nuances that we can’t do online.”

She said Village Merchants Association board members’ attendance since resuming in-person meetings has been stable. She noted that public participation has been minimal since LJVMA does not have “the kind of community attendance that [LJCPA] has.”

The La Jolla Parks & Beaches board, which is not beholden to Brown Act regulations, has held its past two meetings in person only, a choice that President Bob Evans told the Light has been “very well-received and supported by almost everyone.”

“Zoom has been a valuable tool in bringing us together when we could not otherwise meet,” Evans said. “But it’s been my goal as a community organization to ultimately get away from Zoom and back toward in person with more productive and collaborative and engaging discussions.”

Citing technology obstacles, he added that hybrid meetings became “disruptive and fractured in every conversation with trying to meld the in person and virtual.”

Mixing it up

The La Jolla Town Council, which also is not governed by the Brown Act, has been meeting in person at the Rec Center for a few months and has offered an online attendance option as well.

Town Council President Jerri Hunt told the Light that she intends to continue hybrid meetings.

“We prefer that our LJTC meetings are attended in person but realize not everyone can join us,” she said. “We want La Jollans’ voices heard in every way possible.”

The online component is on Zoom via a laptop on the head table, with the computer’s camera facing whoever is speaking. People who speak at the meeting in person are usually handed a microphone. A speaker making a presentation at the meeting is projected on a large screen at the Rec Center.

Hunt didn’t comment about any feedback about the hybrid meetings. But during the online version, remote viewers (typically 30-40 people) usually see a long shot of the board members, with frequent internet connection problems that lead to blurred images, garbled speech and muffled sounds.

People watching on Zoom often complain that they can’t hear the proceedings and that comments made in the Zoom chat often go unnoticed.

In Parks & Beaches’ online setup, a laptop connected to Zoom was pointed at the board, and questions asked via Zoom were repeated to the board or read from the chat.

Enhance La Jolla, which follows Brown Act mandates, also has offered a hybrid format recently that has featured a screen on which those participating via Zoom are projected so they can be better seen and heard. Online participation, however, is usually only a handful of people.

Chairman Ed Witt said future Enhance La Jolla meetings will be held at the La Jolla location of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego with a Zoom option “to ensure everyone ... has an opportunity to participate.”

Updates

2:18 p.m. Nov. 7, 2022: This article was updated with information about the La Jolla Shores Permit Review Committee.