Omar Garcia stood at a podium in May 2019 and told Mayor Arturo Garino and the Nogales City Council how his son was nearly hit by a semi truck on Frank Reed Road near the high school.
Garcia and two like-minded citizens asked the elected officials to do something about the heavy truck traffic and pedestrian safety on the road, such as improve signage, make roadway improvements and install sidewalks.
Their comments came during what is known as the “call to the public,” a practice allowed – though not required – by state law that provides citizens the opportunity to make direct comments or requests to their elected representatives during government meetings. The issue the speaker chooses to address can be part of the official agenda for the meeting, or another topic of personal concern, such as the person’s municipal utility bills, an event they are planning, or heavy truck traffic near a school.
However, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit more than a year ago, governing bodies closed their meetings to public attendance, in turn eliminating the possibility of an in-person call to the public.
In Santa Cruz County, several governing bodies have adopted practices that have allowed citizen voices to still be heard at meetings via remote access calls to the public. At the City of Nogales, however, the change in access and approach has resulted in the effective elimination of those voices from the meetings.
Under the city’s new system, if a citizen is concerned with an item on the agenda, they can submit a comment in writing to the city clerk at least 24 hours in advance (meeting agendas have to be made public no less than 48 hours in advance). Once the concern is recognized and approved by the mayor, the resident can join the meeting by phone or electronically, according to Deputy City Manager John Kissinger.
Previously, community members could speak during the call to the public simply by showing up at the meeting and writing their name on a slip of paper, without any vetting by the mayor or other elected official.
But since the system was implemented, the outside voices heard at city meetings have been those of people invited to attend and speak, such as contractors and legal counsel. That means grassroots citizen input has been absent from official discussions on matters such as the annexation of areas outside city limits, municipal policy on delinquent utility bills, local regulation of recreational marijuana and the city’s responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, including restrictions and protocols that affect residents on a daily basis.
It also means that during a period in which city buildings have been locked in order to limit in-person contact between city employees and the public, community members have faced a more cumbersome process for publicly addressing their elected officials about issues of concern to them that don’t appear on an official agenda.
‘Straight in the eye’
The city’s last call to the public was held on March 3, 2020, two weeks before COVID-19 restrictions were established. During that meeting, several members of the public spoke out on a councilmember’s proposed proclamation that aimed to declare Nogales a “sanctuary city for the unborn.”
The anti-abortion proclamation was ultimately tabled following the outcry.
“We stopped it because there was a call to the public ... because we could look at them straight in the eye,” said Anne Doan, a Nogales resident who spoke out during that last call to the public.
“If there had not been a call to the public we would have this as a sanctuary city for the unborn,” she added.
The proposed proclamation was brought back two months later, when the public was no longer allowed into the meetings or to actively join in via the internet (city meetings are broadcast online via YouTube, where citizens can watch but not directly participate.) Instead, opponents demonstrated outside City Hall. The proposal was tabled once again.
Doan’s experience at the March 2020 meeting shows how participating in a call to the public can give citizens a feeling of empowerment. Paul Lewis, associate professor at the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University, said eliminating the call to the public in its traditional format can have lasting effects to the contrary.
“People who are already inclined to be disillusioned or mistrustful or think that politics is just not for them, this may alienate them even a little bit more,” he said.
Doan said she believes there are other ways of conducting meetings, and suggested the online meeting platform Zoom as an alternative that would allow the public to join live. She said she’s worried about the consequences of this new system.
“The long-term repercussion is that the mayor and the council have all the power in the world to make all kinds of rulings and we don’t have a voice,” she said.
Elsewhere in Santa Cruz County
Other governing bodies in Santa Cruz County have adopted pandemic-era processes for public input that are similar to the city’s. But unlike the city’s method, other processes have resulted in a continuation of the call to the public.
The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors tells people to email the board clerk in advance of a meeting to express their interest in joining the call to the public, though they give people until 5 p.m. on the evening before a 9:30 a.m. meeting to submit their questions/comments, rather than the 24-hour notice required by the city. The participant can then dial into the meeting and press *9 to speak, and the supervisors also regularly ask if there’s anyone on the line who didn’t sign up in advance, but who would like to chime in.
A number of people have used the call-in option during the pandemic to address the board on their concerns about the way the county tallies COVID-19 infections, to lobby for the removal of coronavirus-related restrictions on businesses, or express their opinion on whether the board should allow a public event to go forward.
At the Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District, spokeswoman Shannon Enciso outlined a process in which citizens who wish to speak during a call to the public need to submit their questions or concerns in writing in advance of the meeting. From there, the district will make arrangements for the person to either attend in person or call in to speak their mind.
That includes people who want to question the district’s leadership. In one case during the last year, a teachers’ union representative spoke at the school board’s call to the public to raise concerns about the district’s transparency on COVID-19 issues.
SCVUSD has also posted a message to its governing board’s webpage with instructions on how to participate in the call to the public. And, like the County Board of Supervisors, it continues to list a call to the public as a component of its meeting agendas. The City of Nogales does not.
Prior to the pandemic, the call to the public portions of Nogales City Council meetings didn’t always include someone getting up to speak. But Lewis, the ASU professor, emphasized the value of encouraging public participation even in situations when the public hesitates to engage.
“People can provide information to elected officials, it can give elected officials some sort of quick read on public opinion on a particular topic and how much people care about an issue,” he said.
“Otherwise, the elected officials are often relying on staff to say this is the way we should do it and often that is enough for elected officials to take input for a decision.”
It’s not clear if people have requested to speak at a Nogales City Council meeting during the pandemic, but had their request ignored or denied. When the Nogales International asked the city in May 2020 for copies of any comments submitted in advance of that month’s regular council meeting, there was no response.
By law, official government business must be conducted in English, and the city’s constituency is more likely to include monolingual Spanish speakers than SCVUSD or the county government. Still, the Nogales council has been amenable in the past to having people speak in Spanish during the call to the public.
During a public hearing in December 2019 about the city’s proposed annexation plan, a number of residents of Chula Vista and other affected neighborhoods addressed the council in Spanish, leading to some back-and-forth between elected officials and residents in both Spanish and English.
Francis Glad, a Nogales resident and chair of the Santa Cruz County Democratic Party, said the city can do more to encourage public participation and to make sure residents are aware that there is an option to voice their concerns.
“Even if it’s looking into what other cities are doing and even what our county is doing,” she said.
Glad said she doesn’t believe that most members of the monolingual Spanish-speaking community are at a disadvantage when it comes to political participation in Nogales, but she said the city could still do more for those who do not speak English.
“Even if it’s just translating that comments are welcome,” she said, noting that monolingual Spanish-speakers might hesitate to participate in the decision-making process if they are not aware that they can do so in their own language.
“It might be intimidating for people who don’t know about this,” she added.
Going forward, it’s not clear when a traditional call to the public will return to local government meetings.
The county, which has re-opened its buildings to the public and allowed limited public attendance at board of supervisors meetings, appears headed in that direction. But the city is still keeping its doors locked and its meetings off limits to the public.
Kissinger said city officials meet regularly to decide whether or not council meetings will remain closed to the public. But to this point, not enough of the local population has been vaccinated against COVID-19 to adequately reduce the health risks, he said.
(Reporter Lidia Terrazas is working with the Nogales International on a special project called “Voces Calladas: Out of the Shadows,” which seeks to shine a light on barriers to political participation in the community and identify solutions. This story examining questions of government transparency and citizen access to participatory democracy, is part of that project.)