The tensions of society’s newfound approach to COVID-19 protocols were evident during a fifteen-minute segment of the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors meeting on March 1, 2022, as members discussed whether the board would reopen the chambers and meet with the public face-to-face or consider a hybrid model going forward.
The Mendocino County’s Board of Supervisors meetings became virtual at the onset of the pandemic. Proponents of the virtual approach argue that remote meetings have proven powerful in allowing more of the Mendocino County public to participate and engage with the county’s most important legislative body. Pre–pandemic, when the board was in-person, the meetings were really the realm of those who had the time off work, patience, and transportation to attend.
But now, as omicron numbers drop, as Mendocino County’s Public Health Officer Dr. Andy Coren considers dropping indoor masking in the near future, as local schools move to not requiring masking, the Board of Supervisors is caught in the tension so many institutions find themselves: how do we accommodate those reticent to emerge while at the same time give constituents the in-person access to the government representatives some of their representatives are advocating for.
The issues flared up during what first appeared to be a quick affirmation of the Consent Agenda Item entitled, “Adoption of Resolution Finding That State and Local Officials Continue to Recommend Measures to Promote Social Distancing In Connection With Public Meetings.”
Two months ago, as omicron cases soared and talk of “endemic” and “self-responsibility” were distant potentialities, this item would have been no cause for concern. But, the world has changed a lot in sixty days.
3rd District Supervisor John Haschak interrupted the affirmation of the consent agenda item saying, “I think it is time to open up the chambers and go back to our regular meetings, except for having a hybrid option where people can still call in.”
Haschak described a Mendocino County public hungry for face-to-face interactions with their public officials saying, “People from all corners of our county want to see the chambers open so there can be public discourse and we can be together again.”
Supervisor Haschak pointed towards the plummeting case numbers of omicron in Mendocino County as an opportunity to return to physical meetings. He said, “I think that with the omicron going down, the numbers being at a reasonable state, I think it is time to reopen the chambers.”
Mendocino County’s CEO Carmel Angelo reminded the board the ongoing renovations of the chambers are set to finish by the end of March, and with that, the county staff had planned to consider the policies regarding in-person meetings.
She foresaw Dr. Coren’s recommendations regarding “teleconferencing during public meetings of all legislative bodies to protect the community’s health” would change to accommodate in-person board meetings around the same time the renovations are complete.
With the convergence of the renovations’ completion and Dr. Coren’s evolving recommendations, CEO Angel predicted the earliest the chambers would reopen for public meetings would be early April.
4th District Supervisor Dan Gjerde responded to Angelo, seemingly skeptical of the ever-shifting finish line of these renovations, saying the board was told that they would be complete in February, then March, and now April.
Based on the fluid timeline, Supervisor Gjerde requested an agenda item for the March 15, 2022 meeting where supervisors could be apprised of the board chambers’ renovations and the potential of reopening to in-person meetings.
Supervisor Gjerde then communicated his full-fledged support of a hybrid model where some members of the Board could attend in-person while others could attend remotely. He couched the importance of this option because of the possibility of board members having “medical reasons we are more vulnerable [to COVID] or we have family members who are.”
Supervisor Gjerde then made an interesting assertion: “My understanding is that the law allows us, for any particular reason, to participate remotely. If, for example, Supervisor Williams and I wanted to participate from the coast and reduce our carbon footprint, that is just fine.”
Supervisor Gjerde praised virtual meetings calling them “beneficial to the majority of people who do not live within a commuting zone of Ukiah such as people who live on the coast and the North County.” The format has “made our meetings much more accessible”, not requiring interested participants to “blow half a day to drive to Ukiah and wait all day to comment on the one agenda item they are interested in.”
Carrying the banner of accessibility and carbon footprint reduction, Supervisor Gjerde said “ I think these Zoom meetings should continue in some fashion even with the chambers opened up.”
1st District Supervisor Glenn McGourty piped in, sharing in Gjerde’s appreciation for virtual meetings allowing broader access to the public.
McGourty’s tone turned grave when he said, “We need to hear from Dr. Coren what he thinks is reasonable with the incidents of cases and the potential infection threat to us.” He followed this appeal to authority with the admission that “I know myself personally and I really don’t go out into public very much because of health concerns.”
Supervisor McGourty recognized, “the desire of the public to get back to some level of normalcy, and I’m supportive of that. We need to find out the best solution that keeps us healthy, but at the same time gives us public access.”
Sensing the divergent opinions amongst the board members, Supervisor Haschak proposed the issue of reopening the chambers, navigating in-person versus remote meetings, and Dr. Coren’s perspective on reopening the chambers safely be examined in an agenda item at the upcoming March 15, 2022 board meeting.
Chair Williams pointed the board back to the consent agenda item at hand and then reminded the Board of Supervisors “I do think we should stick to the item at hand, that is not within the scope of the resolution.”
Seeking clarification on the hybrid model proposed by Supervisor Gjerde, CEO Angelo said if the board moves to open the chamber, “my understanding is the full board will be in the chamber.”
She went on saying, “I thought I heard that the staff would be in the chamber, the public would be in the chamber, but the full board would not be in the chamber? I think that would be problematic.”
2nd District Supervisor Mo Mulheren raised her virtual hand, and right after CEO Angelo characterized the potential of select supervisors opting out of in-person meetings as “problematic”, Supervisor Mulheren quipped, “That took a shift from what I was going to say.”
Speaking to the dilemma at hand, Supervisor Mulheren said “I have no issues with being in the chambers with the public personally, and I have no issues coming back to full meetings.”
Looking ahead at the potential logistical issues implementing these in-person meetings, Supervisor Mulheren mentioned that security should be considered and suggested board staff “poll the board individually whether or not they’ll be attending individually or in person.”
In true Chairman of the Board spirit, ever focused on keeping the discussion moving forward, Chair Williams motioned to pass the agenda item along saying, “I don’t feel the need for a presentation if staff is planning to open chambers with the full board present [at] the first meeting in April.”
It was Supervisor McGourty who would then call out the mixed messages the board’s discussion had prompted. After Chair Williams dismissed the need for an agenda item on March 15 exploring the issue of reopening the chamber, Supervisor McGourty pointedly asked, “Is that what you want? We talked about hybrid, we talked about full board presentation. I think it is worthy of some discussion.”
Supervisor Gjerde seemed in disbelief at the prospect of the full board being required to return to in-person meetings. His voice’s tempo picked up and his register raised saying, “This is the first time I’ve heard the CEO say that opening the chamber somehow means that all five supervisors are in the room.”
When working with county staff in preparation for the return to in-person meetings, Supervisor Gjerde said, “I’ve always discussed it with county staff that there would be the option of supervisors participating remotely if they wanted to….”
Sensing the need for clarity on a path forward, Supervisor Haschak opined, “This is why we need an agenda item on the 15th to figure out what we can do, what the limitations are, and what the policies are going to be.”
CEO Angelo proceeded to challenge this notion that the Board of Supervisors could implement a hybrid model in the face of a Mendocino County public hungry for an opportunity to speak with their representatives face-to-face.
Recognizing a portion of the public’s dissatisfaction with the board, county staff, and the health officer, CEO Angelo said, “To open the chamber and have the staff sitting here in the chamber and not have all five supervisors is something that may not work.”
If the Mendocino County public came to the board chambers to provide feedback to the representative and found they were attending remotely, “I’m afraid there could be some disruption in the meeting.”
Contemplating this reality of county staff having to deescalate constituents who are frustrated their supervisor was attending remotely, CEO Angelo said plainly, “I don’t think that would work.”
Supervisor McGourty asked CEO Angelo point-blank, “Are you worried about your security? A physical altercation or something like that?”
In response, CEO Angelo reminded McGourty that she would not be attending the meeting because of her upcoming retirement, but did say “I am worried about the staff, yes. I think the leaders in the county need to be here for the first meeting when you open up.” If the Mendocino County public saw county staff at the chambers, but not all five supervisors, CEO Angelo said, it is going to reflect poorly on the board and on the county.”
As CEO Angelo ended her statement, Chair Williams, ever the agenda-driver, asked for any motions to approve the item, which Supervisor Gjerde obliged. The motion passed after Chair Williams, Supervisor Gjerde, and Supervisor McGourty voted in favor.
Quickly after the rapid-fire approval of the item, Supervisor Haschak proposed the item be revisited on March 15, which was also approved.
Supervisor McGourty stated “for the record” that he would be willing to be present at the first meeting, but once again expressed concerns about following COVID-19 protocols “to keep us at minimal risk.”
On March 15, Mendocino County residents can expect a better sense of their Board of Supervisors’ path forward to once again be available to their constituents in-person.