Area cities consider reopening meetings to residents

By Alfredo Santana

Contributing Writer

LOS ANGELES — Most cities in Southeast Los Angeles are rolling back closed-door council meetings policies following steady reductions in COVID-19 transmissions and some are already conducting fully staffed meetings free of masks for the first time in two years.

But other cities are continuing safety measures that ban in-person attendance, encouraging people to join in using web connections to watch gatherings live, and dial by phone to make public comments.

On March 16, the Lynwood City Council held its first meeting in two years with none of its five council members donning face coverings.

The city reopened council chambers to the public about a month ago, but Lynwood will keep its hybrid teleconferences to allow people still uncomfortable to gather indoors to view and discuss municipal business at home, Councilwoman Marisela Santana said.

“Initially, we had meetings with the public, but everybody was masked,” Santana said. “We also continued with Zoom meetings, the hybrid format, because we wanted to make sure the community continues to participate.”

Most cities have the flexibility to stream public meetings provided that they are accessible to participants by issuing access codes and phone numbers to watch them and address their elected officials.

Faced with COVID-19 variants that caused unpredictable infection surges, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB 361 last September, permitting legislative bodies to switch to online teleconferences, temporarily removing Brown Act mandates until the emergency law expires Jan. 1, 2024.

South Gate Mayor Al Rios said that if the current trend of declining infections holds, the city would reopen council chambers in April. The city plans to feature online viewing for the foreseeable future because many residents enjoy the digital format.

“By popular demand, they like to stay in their homes and attend online,” Rios said. “So we will take more online and in-person comments.”

Rios added that people attending council meetings in person would have priority when addressing the council.

Of course, public in chambers will have priority because they’ll be addressing” the council in person, Rios said.

Norwalk plans to conduct its first open City Council meeting April 5, according to Lt. Eric Wosick, the city’s Public Safety Department emergency manager.

He said it would be up to each individual to wear masks inside chambers, including council members.

“We already adopted the county’s guidance” of strongly recommending masking inside a closed facility, Wosick said.

Pico Rivera conducted its first open doors council meeting on chambers March 22, with the caveat that all attendees had to be masked.

Downey held its March 8 council meeting remotely with four of the five council members seated on the dais, but reopened its doors to the public March 22, with city staff recommending that everyone wear masks while indoors.

Paramount allowed the public to attend its March 15 council meeting, but plans to continue streaming them on YouTube, said Abril Gallardo, the city manager’s office assistant.

“Now, residents are allowed to show up in person and may not wear masks indoors,” Gallardo said.

Not all area cities are on board with reopening council meetings this month.

City of Commerce Deputy City Clerk Angie Verdin said council meetings will continue via teleconference on April 12. Council members will discuss reopening meetings to the public at that time.

In comparison, Whittier transmitted its two March council meetings on the web and its local cable television channel.

Council meetings in Huntington Park remain closed to the public, and will remain so until elected officials handle the issue next month, Assistant City Clerk Lucy Urzua said.

The city posted on its website that people interested in attending council meetings “are strongly encouraged to observe” them on its special teleconference link.

Urzua noted that City Hall services, such as applying for construction or remodeling permits, business licenses, paying infractions or requesting records can be conducted in person.

“Unfortunately, we are not open to the public on city council meetings yet,” she said.

Similarly, Maywood City Clerk Shirley Quinones said council meetings are still closed to the public, and elected officials would take on the public’s access issue soon.

A staff member with Bell Gardens said the city does not plan to reopen council meetings through April. The city will continue offering internet access to public gatherings using the internet and phone lines, including those of the planning commission, the administrative employee said.

Back in Lynwood, Santana said the city is prepared to reinstate safety protocols this spring, if necessary.

“It’s important that we still take care of each other,” she said. “That we protect colleagues and city employees. We want to encourage people to wear masks, and we do provide them if people request them. In case of another surge, Lynwood is ready.”