Time’s running short for some La Jolla groups to return to in-person meetings as COVID emergency nears end
Those governed by the state’s open-meetings law will have to resume in-person meetings when the emergency declaration expires at the end of this month.
Just weeks before the COVID-19-related state of emergency declared in 2020 by California Gov. Gavin Newsom ends Feb. 28, many of La Jolla’s “alphabet soup” of acronymed civic groups are facing changes in how their meetings will proceed.
All groups governed by the Brown Act, the state’s open-meetings law, were allowed by Assembly Bill 361 to have online-only meetings during the state of emergency. But at the emergency’s end, they will have to resume in-person meetings.
The Brown Act, passed in 1953, spells out how legislative and some civic organizations must meet to enable public access.
A Dec. 20 memo from the San Diego city attorney’s office outlining amended provisions to the law states that members of boards, committees and commissions will not be able to attend meetings virtually except in certain cases, such as child-care needs, contagious illness, disability, travel while on official public business or “emergency circumstances.” Those who attend virtually will not count toward the number of members needed for a quorum (the minimum who must be present for an official vote).
For most boards, committees and commissions that meet monthly, members will be limited to two allowable virtual appearances per year.
Leslie Wolf Branscomb, public information officer for the city attorney’s office, said the Brown Act does not contain a grace period for groups to return to in-person meetings.
San Diego Communications Department Director Nicole Darling said “the city is looking at options to support our boards and commissions as they return to in-person meetings.”
Greg Jackson, a trustee of the La Jolla Community Planning Association, which has met exclusively online during the pandemic, said the group’s March 2 meeting likely will be in person.
Though things may change by the end of the month, “trustees that wish to vote or … anyone that wants to have their attendance counted toward voting in the future must attend in person … even if the meeting is broadcast,” he said.
LJCPA President Diane Kane said she wanted to have meetings at the La Jolla/Riford Library, but it is not open late enough on Thursdays, when the board meets at 6 p.m.
“That either means we are going to meet somewhere else or on another date when the library is open,” Kane said. The library stays open until 8 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays.
Kane noted that the LJCPA president has the authority to move the meeting date with 10 days’ notice.
She added that the La Jolla Recreation Center — where the board met before the pandemic — has increased its programming, which has decreased the times when planning groups would be able to meet there.
Kane also questioned whether community planning groups need to be regulated by the Brown Act, telling the La Jolla Light that such groups are not decision-makers but rather are recommendation-makers.
Darling told the Light that specific questions about Brown Act protocols for community groups and the guidance the city will provide must be directed to the city’s office of boards and commissions. A representative of that office was not immediately available to comment.
“Nonetheless,” Kane said, “it is clear the Brown Act needs to be updated to take new technology into consideration. Virtual meetings have been highly embraced by the general public.”
Online meetings are “convenient, efficient, cost-effective, handicapped-accessible and environmentally friendly,” she said. “Moreover, they promote democracy by increasing accountability, transparency and participation.”
La Jolla groups under the LJCPA umbrella, among them the Development Permit Review Committee and the Traffic & Transportation Board, will follow the protocol of the Community Planning Association.
“It is clear the Brown Act needs to be updated to take new technology into consideration. Virtual meetings have been highly embraced by the general public.”
— Diane Kane, president of the La Jolla Community Planning Association
The La Jolla Shores Association, which currently meets only online, will take up the meetings discussion Wednesday, Feb. 8.
LJSA President Janie Emerson said all options will be discussed, but added that she believes nonprofit community groups might not have to comply. LJSA is a nonprofit corporation registered with the state.
The La Jolla Community Recreation Group — which oversees the Rec Center — will hold its Feb. 22 meeting online. CRG Chairwoman Mary Coakley Munk said the board will decide then how to handle future meetings.
Other La Jolla groups governed by the Brown Act, such as the Village Merchants Association and Enhance La Jolla, have been meeting exclusively in person for months.
Joe Terry, president of the Bird Rock Community Council, said his organization is not beholden to the Brown Act but plans to begin meeting in person in March, with the option to attend virtually. The BRCC executive board has meetings outside of the group’s monthly public meetings.
Jerri Hunt, president of the La Jolla Town Council, which also is not governed by the Brown Act, has been meeting in a hybrid virtual/in-person format for months. Hunt said the online option will continue beyond this month.
“We want to stay accessible to as many people as possible,” she said.
The La Jolla Parks & Beaches board also is not governed by the Brown Act but has met exclusively in person for months.
— La Jolla Light staff writer Ashley Mackin-Solomon contributed to this report. ◆
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