By Debra Moore
Plumas Unified does it. The city of Portola does it. Feather River College does it. Hospital districts do it. So why can’t the Plumas County Board of Supervisors?
That’s the question being asked by county residents as they seek to have their voices heard by their county supervisors. It’s not a new question, but one that has been growing as Eastern Plumas residents worry about a proposed mine expansion just outside the city limits of Portola.
While the aforementioned entities have turned to Zoom meetings since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic — which allow public access virtually and via phone lines — the Plumas County Board of Supervisors has resolutely stuck with its live broadcasts that preclude interaction unless individuals appear in person to speak. Individuals may submit public comment via email or written letter, but those comments aren’t read aloud into the record — giving other members of the public no live access to what is presented.
Compare that to a recent meeting of the Portola City Council during which the topic of the proposed mine expansion was on the agenda. City Manager Lauren Knox read 40 public comment letters into the official record and 14 members of the public weighed in on the topic during the live Zoom meeting. The mine’s owner was able to listen to the public comments and respond, and the city council members were able to hear all of the conversation and then debate the matter.
When Plumas News approached the county last year about moving toward a platform such as Zoom, we were told it wasn’t being considered because residents could view the proceedings live online, submit written comments or appear in person.
Portola resident Josh Hart has lobbied the county repeatedly to provide access that extends beyond the livestream option. He argues that many residents have such poor Internet access that they aren’t able to view the livestream and during the age of COVID, it’s not advised that residents congregate in a small space. He also cited his own specific health concerns.
“We believe it is inappropriate to continue to hold in-person meetings when members of our community are dying, and infection is rampant. Holding meetings without an online/toll-free telephone comment opportunity during a lockdown risks public health, cuts off the ability for the community to hear what others are saying at meetings, makes public input impossible for those who are elderly and vulnerable, and is in violation of state law,” Hart said. Hart and members of his group Plumas Wired have filed a complaint with the state.
But now Hart is no longer a lone voice. Eastern Plumas residents, who want to ensure access to the Board of Supervisors as the mine expansion issue proceeds through the county process, are clamoring for a Zoom platform.
“I am shocked and more than annoyed that the Plumas County Board of Supervisors will not allow virtual (such as Zoom, etc.) access and participation from the public to their meetings,” Dr. Christopher Stanton said in a letter to Plumas News and to the board. “Especially in this ever changing time of Covid mutations, it is imperative that healthy and safe public input be instituted. Indoor air has been shown to be a much more dangerous environment for Covid transmission.”
Stanton touted “a very successful and well run Zoom meeting with the Portola City Council about the proposed aggregate mine” as what could be achieved. “All points of view — pro and con —were heard. If the much smaller budget of Portola allows this access, why can’t the County?”
In a response to his letter, the clerk to the board, reiterated the public’s ability to view the livestream meeting and submit public comment via email at [email protected] or in person.
When Plumas News contacted County Administrator Gabriel Hydrick about the issue a couple of weeks ago, he said that Clerk to the Board Nancy DaForno was working on the situation. When he was contacted Jan. 21 for an update, he said, “We did have some discussion about whether the county is going to move into this.”
But he said no progress has been made because neither he nor DaForno would be able to manage the Zoom platform while performing their other duties during the meeting. “It would mean bringing somebody in from IT,” he said.
The other entities using Zoom rely on their clerks, as well as other staff members, to help monitor the platform, granting access to those who wish to speak.
“We haven’t made the decision either way yet,” Hydrick said, adding it was just recently that he realized others, besides Josh Hart, wanted more access. He said that Hart initially had cited specific health-related issues when asking for accommodation via a virtual platform.
When asked if while he is considering the issue, the board could at a minimum read public comment letters aloud into the record as is done by the city and other entities, Hydrick said he would discuss the issue with Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff Engel.
The next meeting of the Board of Supervisors is scheduled for Feb. 2 at 10 a.m. in the county courthouse.