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COVID-19 transforms how the Napa Board of Supervisors does its business
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Napa County

COVID-19 transforms how the Napa Board of Supervisors does its business

Belia Ramos, Board of supervisors

Supervisor Belia Ramos participated remotely during Thursday afternoon's Napa County Board of Supervisors meeting. 

Democracy looks different for the Napa County Board of Supervisors under the COVID-19 emergency.

Only a handful of chairs are scattered around the Board chamber so members of the public keep at least six feet apart. Two of the five supervisors – Brad Wagenknecht and Belia Ramos – have been telecommuting, their images displayed on a large screen.

Public comments still take place at these public meetings that are largely devoid of the public, but in a different way. Only a few people go to the microphone to address supervisors live.

Rather, people watching video-casts of the meeting are submitting comments by email. Clerk of the Board Jose Luis Valdez reads these comments aloud to the Board. Some people phone in comments.

This is democracy at a social distance.

Some might wonder why supervisors don’t take a break until the world is back to normal. Board chairperson Diane Dillon addressed that matter at the start of the March 25 meeting.

“We had thought about canceling it, but there’s a lot of county business that needs to be done,” Dillon told her live and virtual audience. “It’s essential that it occur.”

Among other things, supervisors heard the latest about COVID-19 from Public Health Officer Dr. Karen Relucio. They heard a mid-year budget review, prompting supervisors to wonder how the COVID-19 shutdown will affect county finances.

They also declared the county’s former Health and Human Services Agency campus on Old Sonoma Road as surplus property so the county can try to sell it. Was that essential business?

County Executive Officer Minh Tran gave the rationale for including the Old Sonoma Road sale on the agenda. The county wants the site to be used for housing in a county and state facing high housing prices and housing is essential.

Napa County’s long-distance democracy had blips at the first March 17 attempt. Supervisors heard an appeal over Bremer Family Winery. Attorney William McKinnon, participating from San Francisco on behalf of the appellants, had trouble getting attention in the Board room to say that he wanted to speak.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said at one point over the Zoom videoconferencing system being used by the county.

The March 25 attempt went more smoothly. The meeting kept moving along, rather than experiencing occasional pauses for technical issues.

Kellie Anderson, who often attends Board of Supervisors meetings, is sheltering-at-home in Angwin and watching the meetings on Zoom. She is submitting comments by email.

“I think they are doing a great job, in terms of getting that Zoom program up,” Anderson said.

But she doesn’t want the county to tackle potentially controversial, non-emergency projects, such as winery expansions, until people feel they can once again attend without COVID-19 fears.

“It’s being in the room, it’s watching who’s saying what, it’s being able to communicate with other folks in the room – you’re denied that,” Anderson said.

Also, some people who want to participate might not be tech-savvy enough to use such things as Zoom, she said.

The Napa City Council is also having to adapt to the COVID-19 emergency. Mayor Jill Techel said the council held a closed-session meeting on Tuesday. Council members now sit six feet from each other and staff to meet social distancing requirements.

“The council has so far been attending in person,” Techel said, adding the city is still looking at options for how council members might attend remotely.

The City Council is scheduled to hold its next meeting on March 31. Techel said the council will take care of things that need to be done during the emergency and noncontroversial items.

Local public meetings are governed by the state’s Brown Act. Gov. Gavin Newsom during the COVID-19 emergency has authorized local governments to allow expanded use of teleconferencing. He waived any requirements that public officials or members of the public must be physically present to participate.

Editor’s note: Because of the health implications of the COVID-19 virus, this article is being made available free to all online readers. If you’d like to join us in supporting the mission of local journalism, please visit napavalleyregister.com/members/join/.

You can reach Barry Eberling at 256-2253 or beberling@napanews.com.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.

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