Manteca is working on a way to make public comments more robust given the reality of the pandemic will make public attendance at City Council meetings a challenge through at least late 2021.
Assistant City Manager Lisa Blackmon noted the city is working with a vendor to allow for comments during remote council meetings. Blackmon said current technology at city hall doesn’t allow for remote comments from the public. She added the vendor that they are dealing with has been swamped and is working through a backlog of similar requests from across the country.
Currently citizens wishing to comment on agenda or to express general concerns and raise issues as has beeen allowed under public comments before the pandemic emergency was declared in March have to submit written comments hours before the meeting starts.
Manteca has been criticized by some by not allowing the public to be in attendance at council meetings given that the cities of Lathrop, Ripon and Escalon are doing so with capacity capped at 25 percent along with social distancing protocols and mandatory mask requirements in place.
Lodi, Tracy and Stockton along with Manteca are not allowing the public to attend in person.
The different policies are based on what appear to some as conflicting directives from the San Joaquin County Health Department issued on Oct. 13 as the county moved from the red to the orange tier. The state has four tiers of pandemic restrictions based on COVID-19 restrictions on a county-by-county basis.
That order prohibits public or private gatherings with more than one household or living unit, except for the limited purpose of engaging in activities permitted.
Among the activities permitted in the county based on state public health directives are the exception to the prohibition against mass gatherings for faith-based services, cultural ceremonies, and protests.
Ripon, Lathrop, and Escalon are operating under the assumption that references a meeting of a public agency given the exceptions were carved out specifically “in an effort to balance First Amendment interest with public health.”
As such the three cities believe the aforementioned activities under the First Amendment exceptions include public meetings of elected bodies at 25 percent capacity capped at 100 people. Protocols such as social distancing, temperatures being taken at the door, and face masks are required.
As a practical matter, the course Tracy and Lodi — that both allow real time comments during council meetings via online or phone — could be the best model going forward for Manteca.
That’s because there are two more tiers to work through first before pandemic restrictions will be allowed to disappear. Based on projections by national and state health officials the earliest that could possibly happen assuming a vaccine is developed is December of 2021.
The next two tiers both restrict gatherings related to First Amendment concerns to 50 percent of capacity. As such there is a high probability on push button issues that people would be turned away at the door of the council chambers that would be limited to 50 percent capacity.
Stockton allows e-comments and voicemail comments. That is in addition to advance in writing and by email that Manteca also allows.
South San Joaquin Irrigation District follows the Tracy and Lodi models for live remote comments.
Manteca Unified School District follows the same protocols as the City of Manteca for public comments submitted prior to the meeting as well as following the Zoom meetings of elected officials via MS Teams Live Event. There is no visual as the City of Manteca allows that provide the ability to show the public PowerPoint presentations.
Blackmon noted that the city is committed to transparency and making it easier for the public to comment and to observe government actions.
The switch to livestreaming Planning Commission meetings will continue after emergency orders pertaining to the pandemic are ended.
At the same time the city is working on livestreaming all meetings of public bodies including the Parks and Recreation Commission, the Senior Center Advisory Committee, the Millennial Advisory Committee and the Youth Advisory Commission.
Manteca also plans on posting video recordings of special workshops such as for street projects on their website for easy public reference 24/7.
That would ,mean someone unable to make a workshop on various concerns such as major street work or those designed to seek public input such as for the proposed Rotten Robbie’s gas station on Airport Way can find out what the city is doing.
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