OWN VOICE. ~ InPerspective by Gregg Dieguez, with a dash of Bruce Laird —
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Sept. 17, 2021
Dear San Mateo County Leadership and Staff:
I request that our County do something our State Legislature and Governor seem unable to do: protect the health and safety of our community while maintaining robust public participation in our democracy.
The State’s muddled and delayed actions regarding public meetings and the Brown act – most recently with passage yesterday of bill AB-361 Open meetings: state and local agencies: teleconferences (https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=202120220AB361 )
– clearly threaten the health, safety and functioning of a number of small local agencies by requiring return to in-person meetings after Sept. 30. Those agencies typically lack sizable meeting spaces sufficient for social distancing, and are not equipped with HVAC systems containing UV sterilization or HEPA filters, and cannot be made so for months and monies yet to be estimated.
AB-361 contains one provision to allow localities to continue teleconferenced public meetings: by having a declared state of emergency. Please use this lever to help.
The COVID-19 Pandemic is still raging across the country, and while better controlled in some areas of California than nationally, still represents a threat to the health and safety of the public, and to elected officials and their families. Further, the return of children to schools, increased travel during the holidays (beginning with Labor Day and continuing through rest of the year), and now mass attendance at sporting events – all augur for another wave of COVID infections as Delta, followed by future viral variants, continues to emerge.
My assessment is supported by the IHME’s (Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation) own projections, even for our relatively pro-active state of California. As shown in the graphs below, depending upon public health behaviors, California could experience an outbreak in coming months which would dwarf the worst to date in this Pandemic. Even with all the advances in COVID treatments and vaccination, our death rate could also surge to near-record levels. Finally, note that the IHME has been typically ‘late to the game’ in recognizing these risks, and has repeatedly UNDER-projected compared to actual cases and deaths. The continued threat of COVID is both immediate and credible.
A number of various Council and Board members have recently spoken in public about their concerns over their health, and that of their constituents and families, should in-person meetings be required. They have also spoken about risks to their personal safety if required to post their home addresses and invite the public in during teleconferencing. It is clear that a wave of resignations and/or meeting cancellations will ensue unless action is taken to allow continued full remote conduct of local agency public meetings, until the COVID Pandemic is concluded.
Further, the advent of broad use of teleconferences has been a marked IMPROVEMENT in public participation, access, and transparency – which were the stated intents of the Brown Act when it was passed. In the absence of a requirement to drive to meetings, we have seen increased participation by not only the public, but also by experts and officials who provide necessary education and context for the issues facing the public. Teleconferences also reduce the time commitment of those involved, allowing them to attend more meetings, with attendant improvements in cross-communication and shared understanding.
With the continued threat of COVID substantiated by credible national organizations, who were just today debating the use of booster shots for the already-vaccinated, I submit the County has solid grounds for declaring and/or extending a state of Public Health Emergency, and thus allowing continuation of teleconference meetings for the public and all elected officials.
I urge you, our County leaders, to remedy the deficiencies in our State’s inadequate actions by declaring a Public Health Emergency until the end of January, 2022, at which time you can reconsider whether further actions to secure both public health and public participation in our governance are required. Your support of such a declaration will allow some good to result from AB361, and avoid serious harms to both our health and our democracy.
Gregg A. Dieguez
Mr. Dieguez is a native San Franciscan, longtime San Mateo County resident, and semi-retired entrepreneur who causes occasional controversy on the Coastside. He is a member of the MCC, but his opinions here are his own, and not those of the Council. In 2003 he co-founded MIT’s Clean Tech Program here in NorCal, which became MIT’s largest alumni speaker program. He lives in Montara. He loves a productive dialog in search of shared understanding.