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Politics

San Diego City Council Considers Keeping Remote Option For Public Comment

San Diego's seal is shown at the downtown City Administration Building, May 8, 2018.
Megan Wood
San Diego's seal is shown at the downtown City Administration Building, May 8, 2018.

While the pandemic has shut down much of people's lives, there is one venue where San Diego residents have had more access, not less — the public comment period during City Council meetings.

Before COVID-19, addressing the San Diego City Council could be an all-day affair. People had to find their way to the 12th floor of the City Administration Building at 202 C Street, fill out a speaker slip and wait — sometimes hours — for their turn to speak. Now that council meetings are entirely virtual, that waiting can be done anywhere with a phone or internet connection.

San Diego City Council Considers Keeping Remote Option For Public Comment
Listen to this story by Andrew Bowen.

And city leaders are considering keeping that option even after the council goes back to in-person meetings, likely in the coming months.

Councilmember Sean Elo-Rivera took office last December but still hasn't sat at the dais for a meeting in the council chambers. He said while he's eager to start meeting in person, virtual meetings have made it easier for youth, parents, working people and those with mobility challenges to engage with their local government.

He said after the pandemic, a remote option for public testimony is worth keeping.

"We often use the phrase of breaking down the walls of City Hall to make government more accessible to the community," Elo-Rivera said. "And when we say that, we mean making it accessible so that someone feels they can just show up and be a part of the decisions that are being made that will impact them."

Former councilmember and open government advocate Donna Frye agreed remote public testimony should stay an option after the pandemic is over. But she said she is also looking forward to the time when people can be in the same room as their elected officials again.

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Something is lost when people are unable to have a visual impact on council members by showing up in groups, Frye said, and virtual meetings allow council members to turn their cameras off and hide behind a picture.

"There is value in being able to provide testimony in person and see what the city council members are doing the whole time at the meeting," Frye said. "You can't really see that on the Zoom."

One possible outcome is that permanent virtual commenting might make already long meetings even longer. Over the past year, a handful of council meetings have stretched late into the night because of a flood of public commenters. The council's budget vote last June lasted more than 13 and a half hours as hundreds of people urged the city to cut spending on police in the wake of the George Floyd killing.

But Councilmember Chris Cate, whose six years in office make him the council's longest-serving member, said he does not think remote public testimony had made meetings longer on average. Even in-person meetings before the pandemic could last all day when an issue was especially controversial, he said, and the benefits of making meetings more accessible outweigh the drawbacks.

"With technology and the different platforms that have made themselves available to us, and I think our willingness to try things differently now, I think there is a way to accommodate that," Cate said.

The decision on whether to incorporate remote testimony into future meetings rests with Council President Jen Campbell, who was not available for an interview but sent KPBS a statement via email.

"I am interested in exploring every opportunity that will allow for as much public comment as possible while also balancing our technical and cost limitations," Campbell said. "I look forward to extended conversations with my colleagues, the City Clerk's Office and the City Attorney's Office to determine that path forward."

Campbell said she was still in talks with the mayor, city clerk and other city officials on when the council would return to in-person meetings.