It’s about accountability — FAC urges residents to oppose AB 817

The First Amendment Coalition alerts the public to a California bill that would weaken open-meetings protections by excusing officials who serve on a wide range of local government bodies from having to show up in person.

AB 817, a bill by Assemblymember Blanca Pacheco, would allow all public meetings conducted by certain government bodies to take place entirely virtually, even without an emergency or specific personal needs of a given member to do so, reducing face-to-face accountability.

The bill would write into the Brown Act an unprecedented level of remoteness to public meetings, such as those held by a new police oversight commission in Vallejo, a controversial civilian elections committee in Shasta County, and a budget committee in San Diego, just to name a few examples.

Consider what an all-virtual government meeting means for community members who make their voices heard on issues using tried-and-true tactics like holding signs, wearing matching shirts or buttons, staging protests outside halls of power or even holding eye contact with officials.

And what it means for journalists who do the important work of keeping Californians informed: When public meetings go entirely online, how can a reporter approach an official to get comment or connect with community members who have views on issues being considered?

State law already allows for ample flexibility for appointed and elected officials to participate in public meetings remotely. The Brown Act has allowed it since the 1990s, so long as certain guardrails were in place, such as informing the public of the official’s location. Yet, state law doesn’t mandate virtual access and participation options for the public, except during limited circumstances. That’s wrong. And we have urged the legislature to increase virtual options for the people.

But AB 817 doesn’t increase public access. It offers an unfair trade off: Let officials avoid appearing in person in order for the public to have a right to a livestream.

We encourage any concerned Californian to raise your voice and let the Senate Committee on Local Government know you demand that public meetings be held in public places, where those who choose to perform public service are accessible to the communities they are serving.

Read our opposition letter. And tell the Senate Local Government Committee to vote no on AB 817. You can also write directly to the committee chair, Sen. María Elena Durazo, to tell her you oppose AB 817.