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Local Governing Bodies to Continue Holding Virtual Meetings Under Proposed Resolution

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By Jorge Casuso

October 21, 2021 -- Santa Monica's elected and appointed bodies will continue to meet with no public in physical attendance under a resolution the City Council is expected to approve Tuesday.

The vote comes after the State last month extended the authority of public agencies to continue holding virtual meetings during the ongoing coronavirus emergency, which is entering its 20th month.

Assembly Bill 361 was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom shortly before Santa Monica's executive order waiving all physical presence requirements under the Brown Act expired September 30.

"The procedures currently set up for City Council meetings, which provide for public attendance and comment through a call-in or internet-based service option, satisfy the requirements of AB 361," staff wrote in a report to the Council.

They noted that the new law will remain in place "while the state of emergency resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying recommendations for social distancing remain in place."

In recommending approval of the resolution, staff cited "the continuing recommendations by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health of social distancing as one mechanism for preventing the spread of COVID-19."

They also cited "the continued threats to health and safety posed by indoor public meetings with large attendance."

Meetings held via teleconferencing, which includes video, require the City to identify ways the public can watch or participate. The City also must allow the public to submit comments during the meetings and address the legislative body in real time.

In the event of a technical disruption, "the legislative body shall take no further action on items appearing on the agenda until public access to the meeting" is restored.

No Council, commission, board or task force meeting has been open to the public since an emergency order was issued by former City Manager Rick Cole on March 16, 2020 closing City Hall.

At its last publicly attended meeting March 10, the Council voted to hire Praesidium to serve as the City's "child protection officer" in the wake of a flood of child molestation accusations involving former City employee Eric Uller.

Since then, the Council has taken numerous actions that would have traditionally drawn large, vocal crowds to City Hall.

They include making dramatic cuts made to dozens of programs and services in the wake of the coronavirus shutdown and the approval of a new Housing Element that complies with the state's mandate to build nearly 9,000 residential units by 2029.

The Council also dealt with the fallout of the May 2020 riots that rocked Santa Monica's confidence in its police force, and it killed the controversial Plaza project on City owned land Downtown.

The Council also underwent its biggest overhaul in decades with the swearing in of three new members elected during a voter revolt last November and the appointment of another two members.

It is unclear when the public will be allowed to physically attend meetings once again.

"Continued reliance on AB 361 will require the Council to adopt a new resolution making required findings every 30 days," staff said in its report.

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