The Goleta Water District is a public water agency serving the City of Goleta, Isla Vista and surrounding areas. There are about 90,000 residents residing in the District who cast more than 75,000 votes in the last election. The District’s expected expenditures during the current 5-year financial plan period ending in 2025 is about $250 million. The District is going through a plan to change the process for election of Board members from at-large to districts. At the present time, Board and standing committee meetings are conducted by a deficient audio only teleconferencing system.
As a director since 2008, I believe there have not been problems with in-person meetings. When the pandemic limited in-person meetings, the Board approved audio only teleconferencing on the grounds that ZOOM, a leading platform had certain security issues. Problems with the platform were essentially been cured. Numerous area public agencies conduct meetings without problems using ZoomM or other platforms. Bill Rosen said that “without video technology, the context of the meeting is lost without the ability to see and interact with staff, other directors and the public. This lack of context detracts from my ability to perform my job for all residents of the District.” The absence of video conferencing limits access and reduces transparency and openness.
We all know why Zoom or other platforms are so popular for official communication. The Santa Barbara’s chief election official uses Zoom for telephone calls. Almost no book club operates without Zoom. I have participated in meetings with more than 150 participants. The Goleta Water District has conducted video meetings for closed sessions. Indeed, the Board moved from audio to video to audio in a silly exercise to keep information from the public.
I believe that every citizen has a right to participate in the meeting process and observe the Board in session. The Board majority flatly denied video access. The reason for continuing the ban on video meeting now has nothing to do with technological issues and the reasons for such change was accomplished in secret without discussion or consultation with the remainder of the board.
Director Borah, explained her reasons for banning video citing a little known author as follows: “some people have an invisible package of unearned assets…an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.” Borah states that the ability to afford a “computer or smartphone is included in the invisible package of privileged assets.”
However, the Board majority apparently believes that that members of the community who lack computers or smartphones to enable their participation in video conferencing arising from a lack of money or technological knowledge based on historical circumstance creates a second less equal group of participants that epitomizes a continuation of privilege.
Borah said that using audio only levels the field. I think the reasons for banning access to video meetings disadvantages board members, staff and the public. Obviously, it would be a problem if meeting access were only by video. But that is not how the system operates. If the District had video meetings, those without computers or smart phones could call in as they do now. Even then, call-in is deficient because without a computer one cannot view Power Point presentations. And given this area includes UCSB, Santa Barbara and Goleta it is unlikely that there are even significant numbers of affected persons that meet Director Borah’s criteria.
In any event, no system is perfect. No system will treat everyone with precise equality. The Brown Act that governs local government meetings deals with audio and video as equal methods of access. There are no second class citizens. But true concern must include the District’s website that gives access to agendas, minutes, reports, plans, codes and vast amounts of information. To be truly equal and level the field, the Board majority would have shut down the District’s entire online information access programs. Giving people who own computers and smartphones access, provides a huge advantage not addressed by Director Borah.
I doubt that the Board majority would shut down those information systems so we have to look for the real reason for the video ban. I think the real reason for audio only meetings is to prevent effective participation by the public in Board meetings.
In the past, Board majority tried to use a secret committee to guide development of a districting plan. The secret committee would have prevented full prevent public participation in the development of a districting plan. I opposed use of a secret committee and it took 14 months of needless delay to establish a proper plan to implement districting. I oppose this secret policy to deny open public meetings for all the citizens of the District. A District resident has written, “Too bad these board members are so against a robust public process. …they just don’t want the light of day on their proceedings or their process. They live in the dark ages of how public meetings are conducted today.”
I do not know if statistics used by Director Borah are correct, but to the extent that a problem may exist let’s see what we can do about it.” Rather than deny a vast majority of citizens effective access to District meetings, or shut down access to information, let’s look for a practical solution. Let’s do a survey of the community and see if there are actual rather than theoretical problems associated with computer access and let’s see if the District can provide aid to those who lack equipment to gain meaningful access to meetings and information.
An agenda item to approve video meetings will be considered at the Goleta Water District Board meeting on November 10, 2020, at 5:30 p.m. Access telephone numbers (844) 854-2222 — access code 687369*
and sign-in information is available on-line at goletawater.com or call the District at (805) 964-6761.