By Shawn Raymundo
City councilors will continue to hold their regular meetings remotely via teleconference, as they reached an impasse on Tuesday, May 19, over a proposal to begin convening the meetings in person again.
Acting Mayor Laura Ferguson and Councilmember Gene James voted in favor returning to in-person meetings, while Councilmembers Chris Hamm and Kathy Ward opposed the motion during a late-night decision.
The deadlocked vote followed an announcement from interim City Manager Robert Dunek to hold Tuesday’s meeting completely over Zoom, advising staff and councilmembers not to go to city hall—an action that drew the ire of Ferguson, who has advocated a return to in-person meetings
In an email sent to Ferguson and city staff late Sunday night, May 17, Dunek said that staff presence wouldn’t be required in council chambers and could participate in the meeting remotely from the new city hall building on Calle Negocio.
“The May 19th meeting will be conducted remotely in an abundance of caution for the benefit of all participants regardless of their location,” Dunek wrote. “Given new protocols, staff’s presence at 100 Presidio is no longer required.”
Ferguson on Tuesday morning called the move “beyond outrageous” and “one of the worst examples of non-elected bureaucrats using the COVID-19 crisis as a political tool.”
Ferguson has taken issue with the way the city has livestreamed the string of socially distant meetings via teleconference. The councilors, who are calling in from a remote location, can be heard, as can city staff, while the camera is fixed on the city of San Clemente seal behind the dais in the council chambers.
Noting that some councilmembers, including herself, have been attending the most recent meetings in person, Ferguson said the camera, therefore, should be zoomed out to display who is in the council chambers and pan over to the person speaking, rather than remaining focused on the city seal.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Ferguson asked Dunek to explain why the city had kept recording the seal instead of having the camera focus on those councilmembers attending the meetings in the chambers.
“It sure wasn’t the council that made that decision,” Ferguson said.
“When we had no one there, it was inappropriate to show a vacant council chamber, and consequently we moved to the steady city seal,” Dunek responded. “Inasmuch as we did not have all the councilmembers there, it was certainly my judgment, one in which it would be inappropriate unless the council changed its direction and told the staff—directed us—to do something different than what we had been doing to that point.”
Ferguson noted that it’s been a decades-old practice of videotaping meetings, so “the council didn’t need to vote to put something back because it never voted to take something away.”
“People just get so tired of looking at the static city seal, and especially at the last meeting on May 5, it was seven hours of people staring at a static city seal, with many of us here, so it was just very much a disservice for people watching,” she said.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the city televised council meetings through its YouTube channel, where viewers on their home computers can see which councilmember, city official, or member of the public was speaking.
The move by Dunek to close council chambers and have everyone use Zoom came after the early-May meeting when Ferguson, Hamm and James showed up to city hall to attend in person.
“As I understand, at the last City Council meeting on May 5, City Management observed and received concerns regarding the feasibility of conducting the meeting in the Council Chambers in light of COVID-19,” Dunek had said in the email. “There were multiple factors raised by participants that needed to be assessed in order to address the feasibility of holding future meetings at the 100 Presidio facility.”
In a press release Tuesday, Ferguson said she had no intention of using Zoom for the meeting and would instead appear at city hall to conduct a press conference shortly before the council’s closed session was scheduled to begin. Councilmember James joined her at city hall.
“I’ve been pressing for the meetings to be videotaped. We’re here in person, so why aren’t we being videotaped?” Ferguson inquired.
Asked how she intended to participate in the meeting if everyone else was on Zoom, Ferguson said she brought her laptop as backup.
“I will be participating via Zoom from the council chambers if Councilmember James is interested in doing the same,” she said. “So I plan on staying on the same page on this one.”
For several weeks, city management was apprehensive about using Zoom for fear of a “Zoom bomb” similar to what happened during a Laguna Beach council meeting in late March, when an individual hacked the meeting to display pornography over the live feed.
“However, after researching other platforms and cities’ successes and problems with them, the IT Division was finally able to identify a transmission protocol that significantly reduced these threats while maintaining viewing integrity to streamed audiences and video recording,” Dunek wrote in his email Sunday.
The Zoom-based livestream through YouTube on Tuesday did encounter one major hiccup. Late into the meeting, during a discussion on filling vacant seats for various local associations and committees, the feed cut out, prompting the city to relaunch a new one.
When the new YouTube stream went live, the feed picked up just as the council was taking a vote on the proposal to resume in-person meetings.
Afterward, while noting that many of the councilors and staff opted not to use the video function on the Zoom app, James asked if the rest of the council was open to using the video function in the next meeting.
“If they’re not going to do that, we might as well just teleconference,” said James, the only councilor who utilized the video function.
“We might as well, considering all of the hiccups tonight,” Ferguson quickly responded.
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.