At last week’s Whittier City Council meeting, nearly 400 emailed letters were received commenting about censuring Councilwoman Jesssica Martinez for her attendance at the “stop the steal” rally  in Washington, D.C., that eventually led to an invasion of the US Capitol.

However, none were allowed to speak by phone, Zoom or some other way, just as in other meetings since March of 2020 as the result of pandemic restrictions.

But the American Civil Liberties Union in a Jan. 11 letter accused the council of violating California’s open-meeting law by not allowing the public to speak during its meeting, even if only virtually or phone.

While city officials cite Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order allowing relaxing restrictions, such as allowing teleconferencing, Peter Eliasberg in the letter and a Friday telephone interview said the city needs to loosen up and is too restrictive.

“The order very clearly allowed them to do things they couldn’t do under the Brown Act like hold teleconference meetings and so on,” Eliasberg said Friday.

“They relaxed certain restrictions but not in any way relaxed restrictions with respect to the idea that people can speak at the meetings, he said, referring to Newsom’s  order. “A speaker is not somebody who submits an email.”

There is no reason why the City Council cannot easily permit members of the public to log in to the meeting and provide live video or telephone comment directly to the council members, Elisasberg wrote,

“Indeed, allowing live Zoom or telephone comment has been common practice throughout the state during the pandemic; city councils, county boards of supervisors, county offices of education, and school districts frequently allow the public to provide,” he said.

However, City Manager Brian Saeki said what the city is doing is in compliance with the governor’s order and that telephone comment received from 5 to 6 p.m. when the meeting begins is read at the council meeting.

The council considered the issue in July but was told there were many technical problems with a call-in option and on a 4-1 vote — with Councilman Henry Bouchot dissenting — chose not to make any changes.

Bouchot in a Tuesday telephone interview, he still would like to open up public comment and not just make it by email.

“The point of public comment is not just to convey a point, but it’s also a tool to exert political pressure on decision makers,” he said. “When you take the ‘live’ out of public comment, you take the teeth out of it.”

Mayor Joe Vinatieri said the ACLU letter has been given to City Attorney Dick Jones, who will analyze it and report on the allegations to the City Council.

Still, Vinaieri said he wants the council to be as public and transparent as possible.

“(But) I don’t think the law says that all comments have to be telephonically or by voice,” he said.

Zenaida Huerta, co-founder of Democrats for Justice that last week held a virtual rally calling for Martinez’ censure before the meeting, criticized the lack of public comment.

The same group also held a Zoom rally Tuesday before the meeting.

“Several Los Angeles County cities have found ways to include the public in a virtual way,” Huerta said.

“People can call in, or they read all of the comments,” she said. “People need a way to be heard. It’s almost like they’re exploiting the fact that we’re in a pandemic. “It’s another excuse not to listen to the public.”


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