The ability for Fullerton residents to participate in local decision-making is becoming more difficult with COVID-19 restrictions.
Any issue that dramatically affects someone’s personal or business life, including zoning of a nearby property, zoning of their own property, new business restrictions, or any matter that profoundly affects them, are issues that the public should have an opportunity to participate in.
It’s hard enough for residents to make their case in person at Council meetings, but that is usually the most effective way. Issues that are not voiced aloud during an actual council or commission meeting are sometimes ignored.
The City Council meetings have, in general, been the best of the various city meetings, but they still need some improvement.
Most difficult, though, are the numerous city committees and commissions, which each have chosen unique ways to address public participation, with little consistency. If a member of the public is used to participating one way, it can come as a surprise that a different committee has opposite rules for their meetings, resulting in a missed opportunity to participate.
Many major decisions are being made without the ability for the public’s participation. For example, at an October 14 Planning Commission public hearing, a developer had 40 minutes during public comment to make their case, while the public’s well-researched 3 submitted emails were neither read nor summarized, as promised on the agenda.
Orange County Best Practices Survey: Vern Nelson, an Anaheim activist, is worried that the pandemic, in addition to taking lives, may also take away local, participatory democracy. He surveyed the ten largest cities of Orange County (and the County itself) to see how they’ve been conducting council meetings, and how residents are able to give comments during the pandemic. (www.orangejuiceblog.com/2020/11/oc-council-meetings-during-covid-and-why-does-sidhu-love-the-darkness).
The city with the best system seems to be Costa Mesa, which combines a Zoom webinar, Granicus (the municipal electronic information system) and YouTube for a meeting in which you can see the council and staff on a grid, and call in by phone to comment.
As the Council discontinues meeting in person, effective virtual methods, such as those suggested below, are essential.
Proposed Best Practices
Consistent protocol: The City should develop a consistent protocol for best practices for the council and commissions to have to have the same, reliable, method for public participation. The current practices are inconsistent across commissions, and sometimes even within a commission. If a consistent protocol can’t be developed, there should at least be a chart explaining the different methods.
Calendar links and charts: Meetings and calendars should clearly indicate how the public can participate, in English, Spanish, closed-caption, and any other necessary languages. This information should also be distributed in flyers or in materials that go out to residents who may not have computers. Water bills are a good method, but they are bi-monthly, and do not always go out to renters.
Phone access: Whether the councils and commissions meet in person or not, there should be phone access for people to submit comments, especially for those without smartphones or computers, or when there’s a technology glitch. Telephone notifications/blasts regarding Council meetings might also encourage more participation.
Broadcast or livestream: There can be quite a learning curve for the public to know how to access the livestream, as each commission is different. The method should be clear, and provided well in advance, so participants don’t lose their opportunity to watch and/or comment. There should be instructions as to when to expect the video or livestream, which can be confusing.
Names and titles: These should be broadcast so you can see the councilmembers or commission members, and it would be helpful if names and staff titles can be available to know who is speaking and if they are speaking in an official capacity.
E-Comments: These should be more than 500 characters and should contain a separate field to insert your name, rather than having to set up an account. They should be available in Spanish, read out loud at council and commission meetings with the person’s name. There needs to be someone verifying that each item has an e-comment attached to it. For example, many Library Board of Trustee agenda items are missing a corresponding e-comment. Include a confirmation that the e-comment will be read and entered into the official record, and a final confirmation when it actually happens. It’s hard to make comments in real-time, and it would be helpful to give some kind of count down so people would know that the eComment period is about to close.
City Council specific: Few people know that their public comments are sometimes addressed immediately after they are made and they leave without the benefit of hearing the feedback that they asked for, so this should be announced. Since meetings will now be virtual, there also needs to be an announcement for the public as to how to pull consent calendar items for discussion. We also need to address the ability of the public to show a photo or a chart during their public comment.
The public is always concerned that their points may not be made as powerfully if they submit a written comment rather than speaking directly to Councilmembers. This becomes especially important if a resident’s business, home, or something they care about strongly is “on the line.” Civic issues can have profound effects on the public, occasionally even at the level of life and death, and, especially during a pandemic, the public deserves to have its say.
If, due to COVID-19, the public may not attend in person, they may watch live online at https://fullerton.legistar.com, on Spectrum Cable Channel 3, and AT&T U-Verse Channel 99.
To give comments ahead of time, you can call (714) 738-6311 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “City Council Meeting Correspondence—Item #” (insert the relevant item number) or “City Council Meeting Correspondence Non-Agenda Item” for general public comments that don’t pertain to an agenda item. Staff will forward these to the City Council, but they will not be read aloud at the council meeting. All correspondence received becomes part of the official record of the meeting and is posted online with the supplemental materials for that meeting. Contact the City Clerk’s Office at email@example.com or (714) 738-6350 with any questions.
Alternatively, you can use the “eComments” found on the city website within the agendas posted online at https://fullerton.legistar.com until the close of the public comment period for the item. These will be read or summarized during the item discussion.
If you have more ideas, contact Friends for a Livable Fullerton at (714) 729-3019 or together@SaveFullerton.com.