On the evening of Sept. 6, Winters City Council was scheduled to pass a resolution to continue virtual meetings, heat and internet outages halted all government business.
City Manager Kathleen Salguero Trepa is the first to note that “the circumstances were pretty extraordinary this week,” regarding the Sept. 6 meeting that could not air virtually. But there is a silver lining in the outage that ceased all roll calls.
“I do think it was a good test case for us because what happens in an emergency, an earthquake or a massive fire, and we all have to adapt and pivot,” she said.
Trepa thanked and reminded residents earlier that morning on the city website for their conservation efforts during the heat wave, urging them to continue to minimize the use of power and set thermostats at 78 degrees or more beginning at 4 p.m.
“We also switched to back up power through generators in order to minimize our impact on the grid because everyone had to get off the grid to a degree possible,” Trepa said. “We all wanted to be able to have our council meeting, but we couldn’t.”
When a city council meeting cannot be held virtually as publicized, Trepa said city officials have no choice but to cancel based on the Brown Act.
“If for any reason there is a technological issue that does not allow remote participants, then we cannot proceed with the meeting just in person because then people who were planning to participate can’t if somehow the technology failed,” she said.
Having live internet meetings is no easy feat, with many factors contributing to its success. The risk of the hybrid model is the complicated technology behind it, according to the city manager, adding all city audio and video equipment had to get altered for virtual meetings. However, without on-site tech support or an IT professional on staff, Trepa said the “small agency with limited resources” is doing the best it can with post-pandemic public participation in government meetings.
“I can’t speak for outside of the state, but statewide, city after city has shown that participation is higher with remote technology than before when you had to be in person,” she said, adding presently, one council member and a few citizens cannot attend the meetings. “We want to be able to maintain that.”
The National League of Cities (NLC), a municipal advocacy group representing more than 2,400 U.S. cities, towns, and villages, confirms Trepa’s suspicion stating that “many localities have seen the benefits that hybrid meetings provide,” including community participation and increased flexibility for elected officials.
“Anybody can be anywhere; they can be on vacation, and if there is something on the agenda and they want to offer their input, then they can remove it,” Trepa said, adding life happens. “Remote technology allows people to participate from anywhere in the governance process, which is a positive.”
While Winters works hard to maintain virtual meetings, Trepa said at any given time, state legislator and the governor can change the rules for public meetings.
“There have been a number of proposed bills to do that and we all watch this very closely,” she said.
The Winters City Council rescheduled the Sept. 6 agenda items to the Sept. 20 meeting.