NEW REPORT: Remote Public Participation at City Council Meetings Is Feasible, Strengthens Local Democracy

Findings show remote access options at city council meetings are a net-positive for both local governments and constituencies 

Sacramento – A new report from California Common Cause, analyzing a survey of one-quarter of California cities, finds that remote public participation options at city council meetings are feasible for cities to offer, both from an administrative and financial perspective, and help expand public participation in local government.

The survey, which roughly one-fourth of all California cities responded to over a two month period in 2023 (June 20 to August 9), asked city clerks to provide their opinion on various aspects of remote public comment at city council meetings, including implementation, continued use, costs, and perceived benefits and hindrances of the medium. City clerks are at the ground level of municipal democracy, managing city council meetings and the public participation in them.

“It’s simple — when the public has more access and the ability to participate in our democracy, they do,” said Sean McMorris, California Common Cause’s transparency, ethics, and accountability program manager. “Public input is critically important to the health of our local governments. Offering remote public participation options gives more people a chance to make their voices heard, particularly for working families and anyone unable to attend in-person.”

California law enshrines the public’s right to participate in local government as a foundational tenet of our democracy. The Brown Act guarantees the opportunity for members of the public to attend and speak at open local government meetings. However, that right is only guaranteed if a member of the public attends the meeting in person, which creates barriers to access for many who have physical, family, transportation, or other constraints. 

The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in the era of remote meetings, and with it, new ideas about how open government could and should operate. However, some questions on logistics and efficacy still remain when it comes to regularly instituting remote public comment as an additional option at open government meetings, absent a state of emergency. 

This report answers these key questions, ultimately concluding that most city halls view remote public comment as a feasible, net positive addition to the open government process.

Other key findings include:

  • Most cities have already adopted remote public comment methods and plan to continue using them;
  • Most cities have implemented remote public comment options successfully and will not face significant ongoing costs; 
  • Remote public comment options have been beneficial to city council meetings and increased public participation and civic engagement; 
  • Remote public comment options have not caused significant negative impacts to city council meetings, such as significantly longer meetings or increased uncivil behavior; and 
  • Most city respondents support continuing to offer remote public comment options.

In the post-pandemic period, lawmakers in Sacramento have only been willing to expand remote public participation options for local governments on the condition that local officeholders wish to use those remote options as well, at times arguing that offering remote public participation free of conditions would be too costly or too burdensome. This report provides actual data from California cities that should help with lawmaking in this area going forward.

While in-person comment and access to government officials should not be replaced by remote-only comment and access, remote public comment as an option in addition to in-person public increases public participation and strengthens local democracies. 

To read “Opening California’s Democracy: A Survey on Remote Public Participation at Government Meetings” click here.