OC Council meetings during COVID, and why does Sidhu love the Darkness?


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This damn virus may take many of our lives, it may abridge our liberties and tank our economy for a while, but will it steal away our local, participatory democracy?  Well, that depends partly on what sort of Mayor and City Council you live under, and how much grief you give them!

We’re going to look and see how the ten largest cities of Orange County (and the County itself) have been conducting their council meetings, and how they’re allowing residents to give comments, during the pandemic.  And the largest of these Orange County cities is:

1. Anaheim (population 352,911)

The erstwhile City of Kindness, OC’s most populous AND biggest-ass town, the one through which flow the largest amounts of money, regularly gives out millions of dollars to its friends, much to the disapproval of many of its outspoken citizens.  Since taking office two years ago, Mayor Harry Sidhu and his lockstep 4-member majority have made every move they legally could to limit democracy at council meetings: hamstringing the minority’s ability to agendize items, unsuccessfully trying to shorten public comment lengths, and stationing an intimidating amount of security in front of the chambers. 

So when the pandemic got bad in March, it wasn’t surprising to see the Sidhu Majority make zero efforts to keep meetings accessible to the public.  Councilmembers now “teleconference” in from home and are broadcast on granicus.com (with painful sound quality), with nothing showing on the screen but a dark empty dais.  Frequent awkward silences and unanswered questions suggest that many members don’t even stay on the phone; sometimes they forget to mute their main line and you can hear them chattering to friends in the background.  As other OC cities began to experiment with Zoom and Cisco Webex, Anaheim used the excuse of an April Zoom-porn-bombing incident in Laguna Beach to take a pass on that. 

“heh-heh… Democracy Dies in Darkness.”

Not to worry, Sidhu assured us, “We are putting off considering major, non-emergency items until we can safely and responsibly do so before the public.  In the meantime, we are making sure we hear from our community at each and every meeting.”  Of course that’s not true – during these practically-closed meetings they’ve finalized the sale  of the Anaheim Stadium for possibly half a billion under its worth, diverted $6.5 million of emergency Covid dollars to their public relations arm “Visit Anaheim,” and conducted MANY misnomered “public hearings” on major real estate decisions. 

Unlike EVERY OTHER city we looked at, the comments of the public are NOT heard or seen at Anaheim Council meetings – they can only be e-mailed (every city allows that minimal option.)  Those e-mailed comments are NOT read out loud during the meeting, and there is no sign that anybody reads them except for maybe the minority members Jose Moreno and (the outgoing) Denise Barnes.  The e-mailed public comments are posted here, but apparently that was too easy for curious folks to read through the spring and summer when they were uploaded as one big document, so now they’re uploaded as numerous separate one-page PDF’s, requiring lots of clicking back and forth and making it near impossible to sort through them to find a topic or author you might be looking for, or just to get a sense of public sentiment on an issue.

Many times Jose and Denise have tried to get meetings broadcast on Zoom or Webex, with an option for the public to call in with comments, and they’ve never gotten any support from the Sidhu Majority.  We’ll get back to Anaheim at the end of this story with an ACTION ITEM, but just in case you’re concerned with the “cost” to a Council that regularly throws around hundreds of millions carelessly, the author has researched how much it would cost Anaheim to broadcast on Cisco Webex and allow live public comment – it would be $192.00 PER YEAR. 

Here’s what the 9-hour, commentless, September 29 Anaheim Council meeting, at which the Stadium property giveaway was finalized, looked like:

2. Santa Ana (pop.330,389)

What a contrast between Anaheim and the roughly same-sized “City of Gold!” Santa Ana has gone through great efforts, trying different ways of making their meetings more transparent and accessible during the pandemic.  Meetings are broadcast on both YouTube Livestream and granicus – you still can’t see the councilmembers doing their thing, but at least their pictures and names are shown on screen while they speak. (Anaheimers who don’t know the voices of their seven councilmembers have no idea who’s even speaking!)

And most importantly, folks who want to comment during Santa Ana meetings can do so by calling in to the teleconferencing line (instructions here) – you won’t be seen, but you’ll be heard!  There is also the option of a “Zoom Webinar” – I’m not clear on how that works, but will try it out at the next meeting Dec. 1.

Check out the video of Santa Ana’s latest meeting, Nov. 17 – the LAST ONE of Miguel Pulido’s 26-year run of being Mayor!  Public comments go from 21:10 to 51:50…

3. Irvine (pop. 303,956)

Ah, the City of Beige.  A.k.a. “Master-Planned-istan.”  The council here has actually still been meeting in its large chambers, while being televised on ICTV online.  So you can actually see Melissa, Farrah, Christina etc doing their things.  But the public is confined to sending in “e-comments” which are read aloud by the city clerk.  Having heard from disgruntled Irviners that this latter is not completely dependable, I spoke to the deputy clerk who admitted that sometimes, when there are just too many comments (like recently when the Veterans Cemetery was being discussed) some comments were omitted or “summarized.”

Still, better than Anaheim (which by the way is gonna end up with the Veterans Cemetery, haha!)  Here’s the latest Irvine Council meeting, public comments read at 1:44:20:

4.  Huntington Beach  (pop. 201,941)

Surf City still holds their meetings on the dais like Irvine, and they’re televised on Granicus.  Councilmembers who can’t or don’t want to attend physically due to Covid or whatever can teleconference in.

For a few months HB had the public send in their comments via “e-comment” like Irvine and had the city clerk read those out loud, but “it just wasn’t the same” as the nice lady on the phone told me.  So now they’ve worked out a way to let the public call in and comment in their own voices, much better! 

Here’s their last meeting, which was supposed to be MMA celebrity Tito Ortiz‘ first appearance as councilman, but he spaced it out or something and wasn’t there. Public comments start around 16:10… but one lady got to go right near the beginning because her comment was somehow related to closed session – she wants the chambers opened up to the public again because “the natives are getting restless!”

5. Garden Grove  (pop. 170,328)

Could the town sometimes known affectionately as Garbage Gulch be as bad in this regard as Anaheim?  I did note Harry Sidhu back in 2012 trying to shame Anaheim for not having as many hotel subsidies as GG – it sounded like he wanted to race them to the bottom, and since then we have!

According to what Garden Grove staff tell me, they are BACKWARD from Irvine and HB – the council teleconferences in from their homes and are broadcast on Garden Grove TV and YouTube, while anyone who wants to comment has to come to the Council chambers, line up, and comment from there.  But I don’t see any space for public comments on the agenda for their Nov. 10 meeting (posted below.)  We’ll have to check out their next meeting, this coming Tuesday the 24th, to see if it’s actually possible to comment.

6. Orange  (pop. 138,816)

This deeply constipated town (the OC’s eponymous “Plaza City”), has sailed through the treacherous seas of district elections while keeping its good old boys power structure intact, by ignoring its own term limits rules.  In a similar spirit they’ve responded to the growing Covid crisis by reducing their Council meetings to ONE PER MONTH.

STILL they’re better than Anaheim – you can WATCH the members and staff video-conferencing in, and there are two options for the public to comment: leave a voice mail which I’m assured will be listened to by council and “summarized” at the meeting by the clerk, or e-mail your comment which IS read by the clerk, as you can hear at the 2:40 mark in the latest meeting video:

7. Fullerton  (pop. 138,200)

This college town, known sometimes as The Largest City in Orange County Without a Nickname, is a hotbed of democracy, and its meetings have gone through various iterations throughout this crisis.  In March and April, Councilman Zahra tells me, they experimented with both Zoom and Webex, having technical problems with each… and then went back to live meetings in Council chambers with strict social distancing rules, not always followed.  Lines for public commenters sometimes stretched out into the parking lot and library, and regular activists like Jane Rands who don’t consider crowds safe during a pandemic felt their ability to comment was infringed.  (They were confined to “e-comments,” 500-character-max, as dramatically interpreted by the City Clerk.)

Now with the new peak in the virus, Fullerton is going to go back to Webex.  Both platforms, Webex and Zoom, have worked out a lot of bugs over these months, but Zahra says Webex interfaces best with granicus and public comments.  The other Fullerton Jane activist, Jane Reiser, has a lot of opinions on how Fullerton is conducting ALL its meetings (not just Council), and thinks the FPPC should get to work prescribing a standard meeting protocol for ALL cities.  I will copy Ms Reiser’s ideas into the comment section.  Here is the latest meeting, with lots of sturm und drang about pot shops, and public comments just before 2:50:00:

8. Costa Mesa (pop. 115,081)

Now THIS is how it’s done, everybody!  “The Goat City of the Arts” combines Zoom webinar, granicus and YouTube to create a spectacular meeting in which you can see the council and staff on a grid, and call in to comment.  You gotta click on this video, Costa Mesa even has their own stirring orchestral opening theme!  (Comments start at 13 minutes.)

9. Mission Viejo  (pop. 94,000)

Larry Gilbert’s & Dan Avery’s town is marked by its flexibility – at least in regards to how it does its council meetings during Covid.  Their city clerk tells me that sometimes they use webex, sometimes zoom; depending on how controversial the subject matter is sometimes they only allow e-mailed comments which will be read by the staff, or sometimes call-in comments will be allowed.  Way to keep those South County conservatives on their toes!

Here’s a recent MV meeting, comments read by the clerk at 13:40:

10. Westminster  (pop. 90,938)

This very cliquish town meets the low bar set by the City of Orange, by reducing its meetings to ONE A MONTH (next, and last one of the year, on Wed. Dec. 9.)  This infuriates our Westminster friends, who point out that the town is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy among all its other homeless and Covid-related crises.  But still they’re better than Anaheim – who isn’t? 

The five-member council video-conferences in on Zoom so the public can witness their mediocrity, pettiness and corruption.  And the public can call in and comment… for FIVE MINUTES EACH!  As in this recent meeting at 10:15:

The County of Orange (pop. 3.176 million)

Let us not, in our humble survey, neglect the Grandaddy of Orange County meetings, the bi-weekly gathering of the county’s Board of Supervisors.  Those shindigs are really something, and are shown on YouTube and granicus.  The last time I was there, toward the beginning of the big paroxysms of anti-maskerism (maybe May) you were allowed to go in and comment, but you had to stand in a long, socially-distanced line with a mask… and the Supervisors themselves had a Safe Space built for them where they watched you placidly from behind some sort of glass – they could see you but you could just barely see them, it was very science-fiction, sort of like the “Future Council” from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure:

Going back at least a few years, the Supervisors have messed with public speaking rules, regularly changing the maximum time, changing general comments from the beginning to the end, forbidding the mention of any of their names – they are currently facing ACLU lawsuits over some of this.  But they did settle on having general comments at the end of the meeting, and if you wanna speak before the end, you gotta tie your speech into some item they are discussing. 

And for the last half year, these Supervisor meetings have been a Grand Hoedown of Covid denial and Anti-Maskerism – so most of these very insane comments get placed before the County’s regular updates on the virus.  My friends who prefer to avoid this crowd and stay healthy have the option of e-mailing their comments in and having them read by County Counsel Leon Page; I think they have to claim to be a protected class though – of an age (older than infanthood) where one is susceptible to the virus.

Anyway, enjoy the latest County Covid Clownshow around minute 30:

BACK TO ANAHEIM!

After this last disastrous election, the forces of democracy in Anaheim have only one champion on the dais, Dr. Jose Moreno.  But remember six or seven years ago, when Tom Tait was the only champion of good government on the Anaheim Council, and we still stopped them from leasing out the Stadium Property to Arte Moreno for 66 years at $1 a year, just by loudly speaking the truth and embarrassing them?  (Yes, that really did happen.)

So let’s get our town open Council meetings, broadcast on Zoom or Cisco Webex (the latter seems better and will cost us $192 a year or less) – with the ability for public commenters to call in and be heard.  We were beginning to plan a demonstration outside City Hall during the next Tuesday meeting, with lots of press … and we’ll do that in January or February 2021 if we still have to … but what with Covid’s Third Spike and the new Holiday Lockdown, we’re going with a Change.Org petition.  Please sign, Anaheim people!  And let’s see if maybe Jordan, Avelino, and the New Jose will join Dr. Moreno and Do The Right Thing for democracy.

Sign Here.


About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist/composer in Orange County, and official troubador of both Anaheim and Huntington Beach (the two ends of the Santa Ana Aquifer.) Performs regularly both solo, and with his savage-jazz quintet The Vern Nelson Problem. Reach at vernpnelson@gmail.com, or 714-235-VERN.