Opinion: Concerning City Hall

By Michele Monda

By Michele Monda

Zoom. What a wonderful addition to Laguna Beach residents’ ability to participate in local government. Parents with children, seniors who have trouble driving at night, and working residents could all participate using the Zoom option when they couldn’t physically attend a City Council meeting.

That ended on Feb. 13 when unidentified callers spewed hateful rhetoric during public comment. The council could not shut down the speakers due to First Amendment issues, so they shut down the meeting. The city has not allowed Zoom callers since, despite then-Interim City Manager Sean Joyce stating that the city would adjust protocols so residents could discuss topics of city development through the platform.

At numerous Council meetings since, residents have repeatedly asked for the resumption of Zoom callers. They got no response from councilmembers. At the May 14 council meeting, after another plea from a resident, Councilmember Mark Orgill finally asked the city attorney if there was technology to verify people on Zoom. The City Attorney Megan Garibaldi replied no, nothing to prevent Zoom bombers. Stating that measures the city could take, such as preregistration, could run afoul of free speech requirements, she didn’t see a way to prevent Zoom bombing. In her opinion, it would require a change of state law.

The city attorney is not a technology expert. Why did Orgill ask her about this? Why did she respond instead of deferring to a real expert? Yet the matter was settled without expert opinion when Orgill said he didn’t want to bring it back until there was a foolproof way to prevent it, and Mayor Sue Kempf agreed. End of topic. End of Zoom.

But other cities have done just that, including cities that experienced Zoom bombing. Los Angeles, San Diego, Long Beach, Irvine, Costa Mesa and San Juan Capistrano, to name just a few. How are they managing, and yet little ol’ Laguna can’t? Some do use preregistration to verify residency. Apparently, they haven’t run afoul of free speech. Some, like Irvine, don’t ask for anything. Forms are emailed or completed online and require either an agenda item or public comment be declared. San Juan Capistrano just has you call in. One way to verify is via the voter registration file – Laguna’s has approximately 19,000 names. The requestor could also email an ID verifying their residency or a utility bill. This happens all the time. Laguna Beach could adjust protocols as the former interim city manager suggested and reinstate Zoom. We can enforce our decorum policy as other cities have as another tool.

This week, The Independent poll asked residents “Should Zoom participation at City Council resume despite the potential for “Zoom bombing” interruptions?” At press time, with 85 respondents, overwhelmingly 88% of respondents said yes, and 11 percent said no.

So why is the City Council majority unwilling to let residents participate via Zoom? Councilmember Alex Rounaghi stated at a City Council meeting that he wants to curb public speaking because it takes away from the time the council has to discuss really important matters. What’s more important than listening to the people who elected them and “carrying out the people’s business?” This is just another example of the City Council majority not listening, literally, to what residents want.

Just like with the Promenade Project Team request that residents be included on it, the City Council majority just shuts residents down. During the pandemic we found that Zoom was very useful to enable public participation. Other cities have Zoom, why not Laguna?

Please write to the City Council, come to future Council meetings, and demand that they bring back Zoom.

Michèle is a 21-year Laguna resident and actively follows Laguna politics. She is the Treasurer of Laguna Beach Sister Cities and is involved with the local arts scene. She can be reached at [email protected].

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