Pleasanton residents will no longer be able to call in virtually during City Council meetings to make comments over Zoom or by phone following a 3-2 decision vote by the councilmembers at their last meeting.
In recommending the shift back to the pre-pandemic commenting rules, city staff cited other government meetings in neighboring cities, like Livermore, where people have used virtual public comment sessions to make hateful comments or remarks, usually anonymously.
"If people want to espouse hate speech, let them come here and do it, rather than hiding behind the shield of a virtual protective cloaking," Councilmember Jeff Nibert said during the Oct. 17 meeting. "I know virtual public comment was something that was enacted during the COVID pandemic. We're beyond that now. I don't think it's necessary to have it anymore."
The change to its public comment policies was initially supposed to be voted on by the council during its consent calendar, which are items that are routine in nature and are typically approved by a single vote. However, Vice Mayor Jack Balch pulled the item for discussion because he said virtual comments reduced barriers for residents to engage with their local government.
"I fundamentally believe reducing access through virtual comment is not the direction we should be going for the most local form of government," Balch told the dais.
Balch, along with Councilmember Julie Testa, voted against the motion mainly because they felt there was value in giving people that option of calling in from home despite the possibility of hate speech.
"I'm very uncomfortable with taking away something that I think has been a real asset for a lot of our community because of the potential of something that will make us uncomfortable," Testa said.
Now, only council members will be allowed to participate in meetings by calling in remotely under emergency circumstances. Meetings themselves will still be viewable virtually by real-time video, but live public comment will be limited to in-person speakers only. Residents can also still submit written comments as well, per state law.
Councilmembers Nibert and Valerie Arkin, along with Mayor Karla Brown, all pointed to the hate speech being the main issue with virtual comments but also said that the city had only accepted in-person comments prior to the pandemic. They also said that residents still have plenty of avenues to get their voices heard, such as emailing or calling members of the dais.
"We are always diligent about our email and we certainly take phone calls, we certainly meet with people throughout the month, not just the day of a council meeting," Brown said during the meeting. "So I'm very proud that we are available to talk to people, we're here to listen, we're aware of what they're thinking."
Brown specifically cited the zoombombing incident that happened in Livermore last month and said that while it was horrific, virtual public comments are not legally required now that the pandemic restrictions have been lifted and that getting rid of that option limits people calling in from outside of the city and making those type of comments.
Arkin, however, had a slightly different outlook on the situation as she said that while she does think residents can call and email as they have done in the past before the pandemic, she would have agreed with Balch and Testa if the city would have been able to authenticate people speaking virtually before they made a comment.
But she also said that because everything is returning more or less to normal, the city had already operated without virtual public comments in the past and the city can't regulate Zoom bombers, she had to side with Nibert and Brown on taking away virtual comments.
And while Testa tried to offer some alternative solution to the issue of "zoombombing", like requiring virtually commenters to turn on their cameras while talking, she and Balch held their ground of dissenting against the council majority's decision on the grounds that calling in from home has significant value to those who want to participate in local government but who might not have the time to go to the meetings in person.
Testa also asked that with taking that option away, she would at least like the city to look at ways to have more definitive times for people to speak earlier in the meetings so that they don't have to wait hours for the item that they would like to speak on, even if that might not be the best practice as Brown said.
"To be able to Zoom in from home, be able to put your kids to bed, kind of keep an eye on the meeting and then still be able to participate and speak from home without the complete disruption to your family ... it has had an enormous amount of value," Testa said. "To take that away, I would request that we look at what can be done so that people can have definitive times that they can show up and speak, instead of having to sit for four hours for their three minutes."