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Mon, Apr

Neighborhood Councils:  SB411 - Zoom vs. In-Person Meetings

THE EASTSIDER - Remember COVID-19, and its remote online impact?  Great for the politicians and the LAUSD Board. Not so much for Angelenos and children. Well, it appears that the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment is about to reimpose it on our Neighborhood Councils!

Someone at DONE got the hot flash that they want to resurrect online meetings for Neighborhood Councils, and they are passing it off as a ‘good thing’.

On June 7th, DONE held a Zoom meeting called a Workshop with Senator Portantino to go over SB411.  It consisted of a back and forth between the Senator and Thomas Soong from DONE.  According to DONE “Tom is responsible for supporting Neighborhood Council Boards with capacity building, training, and organizing skills that Empower LA and engage the community.”

From the video, a few things stood out at the workshop. For one, it sure sounded like any NC could go back and forth from online to in-person based on a 2/3 vote from their Board. In theory, for a while they could be online, and after another 2/3 vote to go back to in person.

For those interested you can find the actual video here.

First, it was clear that the Bill, which would require an affirmative vote by the full City Council, was already guaranteed a yes vote because Portantino’s office had been in contact with the City Council and had an indication that such would be the case.

Second, there is no mention who actually got the Senator to promulgate the legislation. It had to be DONE, an EmpowerLA special, but there was no indication of just who in the City actually got the Senator to write SB411.

Third, the reason for the legislation is built on a shaky foundation which simply indicates DONE’s incompetence. Section 1, in part states:

“Unlike other legislative bodies that have access to a regular meeting locations, these volunteer, uncompensated, elected members have had trouble finding public locations to hold their meetings.”

Gee, I thought providing meeting places was what DONE is gets paid to do. 

SB 411 In Detail

As I look at the April 24th Amended Bill, there are a number of requirements for a Neighborhood Council to use teleconferencing.

1) It takes a 2/3 majority vote of a Neighborhood Council to trigger the option

2) The Bill would not sunset until January 1, 2028

3) The Bill is only operative if the City Council authorizes the Bill

4) If the City Council ok’s the Bill, then it will take 2/3 affirmative vote by a Neighborhood Council Board, and they must provide “its justification to do so”

5) If the NC at some point wants to change their mind and meet in person, it will again take a 2/3 vote so the Council “may adopt” an action going back to in-person meetings

6) If the public can’t participate via call-in or online public comment, the NC may take no formal actions 

7) Also, there are requirements that the NC must abide by regarding public comment:

- At least a quorum of the NC Board must participate “from locations within the boundaries of the City”

- If the Zoom meeting is during City Hall hours, in-person participation will be from “the offices of the City Council member who represents the area.”

-  If it’s an evening meeting, the NC must provide reasonable accommodation for a physical location where the community can “participate from”.

There’s more, but these are the basics.

Zoom vs In-Person Meetings

I’ve been a mediator and factfinder for public agencies and their unions for more decades than I like to think about.  When COVID came along, remote hearings became the norm since there were no open meetings. After doing a few online only hearings, I realized that compared to in-person hearings, I probably wound up with about a 30% drop in information compared to regular hearings at a facility.

I can’t quite quantify the difference, but being in the same room, with everyone present, makes it easier for me to probe, see the reactions, and see the interactions of the various parties/witnesses, that sort of thing.

I was thrilled when COVID no longer mandated remote meetings and think that since then it has been easier to get the parties closer to agreement and make recommendations which are more often result in partial or full agreement. In talking to my peers, they almost all have had the same experience.

And as to my niece, who’s a Freshman at Cal State Northridge, she finds the in-person classes way superior to remote/on-line education.  Less boring and more interactive.

For a moment, let’s go back to COVID-19, when DONE used the excuse to have Neighborhood Councils to meet online only.

Since their budget didn’t shrink, DONE made a ton of money. Of course, that was not enough for Raquel Beltran, when she asked for another million in her next budget. Even as DONE was raking it in while not having to staff in-person meetings and pay for venues. 

After the pandemic was officially over, DONE no longer had a number of physical meeting places, since they didn’t need them under COVID protocols. So, what was DONE to do, since I think they had no interest in providing physical spaces, which would have to be paid for out of their budget.

Along comes SB411, and they get to keep the money. More staff, more “initiatives” to blow money, and the usual top-down empire building. While I have no actual proof, methinks that’s what this is really all about.

The Takeaway

If the real concern is that DONE wants to maximize participation, they’re going for the wrong meeting model.  The best way to increase participation in the Neighborhood Council system is simple.  Have in person NC Meetings which are simultaneously broadcast remotely via Zoom.  That way you have the best of both worlds.

If you think about it, the only ones that can make even advisory recommendations are the NC Board members themselves, not the people participating remotely.

I cannot fault the Senator for running the Bill - he’s a good guy and is trying to do a good thing. This is all about DONE failing to do its job and provide a physical location for the 99 Neighborhood Councils like they are supposed to do.

And someone should take a real close look into their budget.

(Tony Butka is an Eastside community activist, who has served on a neighborhood council, has a background in government and is a contributor to CityWatch.)