Some lawmakers in California want to make it more difficult for the public and journalists to keep an eye on what is going on with elected officials and the bodies they represent.

Trust me, if I never had to attend another meeting again, my life would probably be better. But for journalists and the public to not retain the ability to attend meetings, well, I’d go to one every day to keep that right.

Assembly Bill 817 died this month in a California Legislature committee. It’s still important to know about it because it’s likely to be resurrected. The bill would have allowed meetings to take place virtually—all the time, not just in emergency situations.

Yes, I love that the pandemic allowed meetings and other events to be online. This meant I could be part of things without leaving home, as well as “attend” ones that were taking place where I wasn’t. In many ways it made me (and still makes me) more connected if I choose to listen. I love having this capability for webinars and political meetings.

The problem with this bill is that it would have allowed the electeds to be remote. That is the problem. That means the public and journalists then have only the choice to attend virtually.

Ginny LaRoe, advocacy director for the First Amendment Coalition, wrote in a recent email, “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?”

I can tell you a meeting full of people is impactful. Doesn’t matter the cause or the elected body. You can’t ignore the energy people bring. That is definitely representative, participatory government.

But even when you are the only speaker, it still feels more meaningful to look in the eyes of those who are making the decision. I know. I’ve also spoken as a member of the public.

It has been so valuable in my career as a journalist to be able to attend meetings in person. You see things the camera doesn’t catch. You see the whole room. You see who is paying attention and who isn’t, who is having sidebars, the facial expressions; this includes those who are officially part of the proceedings and those in the audience.

I have come up with so many story ideas from being at a meeting; stories that had nothing to do with the agenda.

Being in person also allows journalists (and others) to ask questions in the moment. Politicians (even at the local level) are good at not returning calls. But stop them in the hallway, well, I’m harder to ignore.

Sure this law would have allowed the public to live stream the event, which is not a guarantee now afforded in the Brown Act. That, though, is a lousy trade off.

Lawmakers need to be creating more transparency, not hide away on video without any personal interaction with constituents. They need to meet in public so anyone who wants to go to the meeting can. And they need to live stream every meeting so those who cannot attend in person can do so. Furthermore, each of those recorded meetings then needs to be online so they can be watched at an individual’s convenience, as well as act as a historical record.

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