Online public meetings still OK but some water agencies are pulling the plug

June 14, 2021
by Lois Henry
Growers and water managers pack a Kern Groundwater Authority meeting in Dec. 2019. Some water agencies are going back to in-person-only meetings while others consider continuing to provide a public online option. CREDIT: Lois Henry
Lois Henry

MORE OPEN OPEN MEETINGS

A bill in the California Legislature would amend the Brown Act, the state’s open meeting act, to require that a city council or county board of supervisors that governs a population of 250,000 or more provide a telephone or online option for the public to participate in the meeting.

Assembly Bill 339 has passed the Assembly and is awaiting a hearing in the Senate.

 

 

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While most public water agencies are still mulling whether to keep an online option for their meetings, some have already clicked off Zoom and marched straight back to early 2020.

The Westlands Water District, which covers a huge swath of western Fresno County, will no longer have a public online option for the public to access its meetings starting June 15.

Growers who had been attending meetings and participating in workshops in droves through Zoom and by telephone, will now have to head to Westlands’ Fresno offices once a month for board and committee meetings which can start as early as 10 a.m. and last throughout the day.

Whether they’ll get a seat is up for question as social distancing will be enforced and public seating in the board room is already extremely limited. Some seats will also be set up in the breakroom, according to a district spokeswoman

To be clear, Westlands, and other public agencies, still could hold meetings remotely as Gov. Newsom has expressly kept Executive Order N-29-20 in place for the foreseeable future. That order relaxed the Brown and Bagley-Keene open meeting acts by allowing board members of legislative bodies to conduct meetings remotely. If meetings were held remotely, the order required telephone and electronic accessibility be provided for the public.

Even once that order is rescinded, however, and meetings go back to in-person there is nothing in the Brown or Bagley-Keene acts that prohibit  agencies from providing online or telephone access to the public.

Greater public access is not prohibited under open meeting laws.

At Westlands, online and telephone options resulted in a significant increase in public participation, according to Sarah Woolf, President of Water Wise, a water management company and former Westlands board member.

“Growers started really getting involved in meetings and asking questions,” she said. “We had a technical advisory workshop on SGMA that lasted four hours. It’s the most information we’ve received on SGMA in six years.”

She referred to the state’s new Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which aims to bring overdrafted aquifers into balance by 2040. That means more water can’t be pumped out than goes back in. Achieving that goal will likely result in a dramatic reduction in irrigated farmland so the stakes are high.

“Growers have said they want to keep Zooming,” Woolf said. “With this action, I get the sense (Westlands) doesn’t value the growers’ input.”

Beyond Westlands, other districts appear to be split between “still thinking” and “probably” as to whether they’ll continue providing online access to meetings.

In a strictly non-scientific survey, SJV Water asked about 30 agencies their meeting plans. Seven were waiting for more state guidance, nine said they would begin meeting in-person with online access provided for the public and four, including Westlands, indicated they were going back to in-person only meetings. Nine districts did not respond.

“We didn’t have a significant change either way in our attendance or participation,” said Steve Teglia, General Manager of Kern Delta Water District, which has already gone back to in-person only meetings. If the public requested an online option, he said, the board would likely consider it.

Most members of the public who attend water district meetings regularly are rooting for online access to become the norm.

“A lot of the residents we work with have gotten iPads or learned to Zoom on their smart phones and started participating,” said Amanda Monaco, a water policy coordinator with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, a nonprofit organization that works with disadvantaged communities.

“Calling in is a lot more accessible than driving an hour to get to one meeting.”

Less travel has been a huge benefit for others.

“Oh, my attendance was way up,” said Don Wright, who operates Water Wrights, a website that provides same-day coverage of water meetings up and down the valley. When he had to drive to meetings, held everywhere from Los Banos to Bakersfield, he said the best he could do was about 12 meeting stories a month. With online meetings, he was able to provide articles covering up to 28 meetings a month.

“I think there’ll be a movement toward keeping both going, in person and online,” he said. “And there are some meetings where it’s better to go in person. But I hope they keep this online thing going as well.”

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.

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