The Gilroy City Council will consider allowing virtual public comments during its meetings, possibly reinstating a pandemic-era policy that let people speak without being physically in attendance.
Virtual public comments have been in the spotlight recently, as jurisdictions across the country have been faced with a rise of anonymous callers spreading hate speech and explicit language during government meetings. In October, the neighboring jurisdictions of Morgan Hill and Watsonville ceased virtual commenting at their city council meetings after being subjected to anti-LGBTQ and racist comments.
Shayne Somavia of Gilroy’s Open Government Commission presented the council with a report on hybrid meetings Nov. 6, recommending the council reinstate virtual comments.
Somavia said the commission looked at Gilroy’s open government ordinance and what other cities in Santa Clara County are doing with hybrid meetings in coming up with the recommendation.
“That gave us the impetus of looking at ways we could encourage participation from members of the public through public comment,” he said.
Of the 15 cities and towns in the county, only Gilroy, Morgan Hill and Monte Sereno don’t allow call-in public comment. For those wanting to spectate the meetings and not comment, Gilroy only offers in-person and a live stream of the meeting, while other cities offer a variety of other options, such as the Zoom videoconferencing platform and phone dial-in.
Somavia said that while it’s impossible to completely eliminate incidents of hate speech, other cities have established rules that help mitigate the issue.
The council could establish rules of civility and decorum, allowing the mayor to cut off speakers if they are in violation of them, he said. Among other things, the council could also require commenters to register in advance and provide their full name and location prior to speaking, which could help discourage “bad actors” from flooding meetings, Somavia added.
Mayor Marie Blankley said many of the ideas in the commission’s report were already in use by the council during the nearly two years of virtual meetings brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.
She said she was in support of providing more ways for the public to listen in to the meeting, but said there are downsides to virtual public comments that are unavoidable, such as people from outside of Gilroy calling in and trying to influence decisions.
Councilmember Rebeca Armendariz said the council has had to deal with “unruly” commenters at its in-person meetings, noting that it is not restricted to those who comment virtually.
Allowing virtual comments, she added, will help make the council meetings more accessible.
“It makes for good meetings that are balanced and robust in terms of our democracy,” Armendariz said.
Councilmember Carol Marques said there are multiple other ways the public can contact the council, such as through email, phone calls and letters, adding that she felt the quality of sharing ideas is lost when it’s not in-person.
“If something really matters to a person, they will come in person, they will make that effort,” she said.
City Attorney Andy Faber said the issue is at top of mind among other jurisdictions, as no city has found the right formula to ending incidents of hate speech.
But ending virtual comments has put elected and civic leaders in the position of balancing First Amendment rights with maintaining decorum and protecting the public from hateful language.
The Nov. 6 meeting was only a report on hybrid meetings. The council agreed to discuss the matter and possibly make a decision at a future meeting.