At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I – as did many Santa Claritans – started attending online civic meetings conducted by the city council, school and water board. As our city and nation struggled to adjust, residents relied heavily on social media and virtual meetings to stay attune to local issues and engage our leaders.
When Gov. Newsom waived the requirement under the Brown Act that required “officials and members of the public… be physically present at a meeting in order to participate,” it allowed for greater public participation and opened many to observe meetings in new and more democratic ways, bringing access to many who would otherwise not engage.
As a home caregiver, I benefit from virtual meetings and over the last year, I participated more in local meetings than at any other time. I feel a greater connection to the important decisions being made in my community without having to transport myself to and from the meetings or worry about bringing home a deadly virus to my immunocompromised family member. Unfortunately, for me and others, it would not last.
On Tuesday, Aug. 3 — despite a flurry of public statements — a majority of male SCV Water Board members voted against continued virtual meetings citing a lack of numbers of participating public calls. One of the board members suggested tabling plans to install a new system to allow for online meetings. I decided to speak up in the meeting beyond the email I had sent, something I normally don’t do.
I expressed my gratitude in being able to attend the meetings virtually, the reasons I couldn’t do in-person meetings and my deep concerns about the current water usage, conservation and preservation efforts in our district. I want to be supportive and part of the solution.
As a resident, I am more than disappointed with the board’s decision to restart in-person meetings at the moment Covid cases are rising in our district. The truth is there are huge benefits to keeping virtual or “hybrid” meetings.
Attending virtual meetings will protect everyone, allowing them to focus on doing the work. Forcing in-person meetings compromises the health of all board members and the public. This is especially concerning as the nation and L.A. County are experiencing rising numbers of unvaccinated Covid cases, the lethal Delta variant and several new variants emerging, namely Lambda, first identified in Peru and in the US in recent weeks.
Additionally, the FDA “may authorize Covid boosters within 24 hours,” according to NBC News, demonstrating that even fully vaccinated Americans are not immune to the dangers of the newer Covid strains.
Second, virtual meetings increase access to public participation. In-person meetings will likely result in less public participation as many people will stay home to avoid compromising the health of their family.
At a time when we are facing extreme weather patterns from human-induced climate change — the onslaught of new land developments that will impact water rates for SCV residents, the growing need to conserve water as population continues to grow and so many more unforeseen challenges — the SCV Water Board of Directors needs more public participation, not less. Water is too important an issue not to allow full access to the public.
Third, the quality of public participation will greatly benefit from “hybrid” meetings as it will allow those voices and ideas critical to decision-making to be expressed where they would otherwise get lost in the back of in-person meetings. It levels the playing field and ensures better access to the board members. Sure, there will be adjustments, but over time the kinks will be worked out and improved quality of service, communication and solutions achieved.
As an added note, it is worth mentioning that hybrid meetings increase transparency, an important consideration as the water board was tainted by scandal prior to the 2020 election, causing some in the community to lose trust in the leadership. (5)
The SCV Water Board of Directors must reconsider its vote. Our future demands that we make virtual “hybrid” meetings a permanent feature of our civic engagement.
Lisa M. McDougald is a 15-year resident of Valencia, an activist, writer and “zero waste” advocate. Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the author do not reflect those of The Proclaimer or Radio Free Santa Clarita, its board and supporters.