Public Call-In Testimony Creates Problems for California Assembly

July 10, 2020 Updated: July 13, 2020

A faulty call-in system used by the California Assembly to facilitate public comment has caused problems during the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting requests by lawmakers to halt public testimony by phone.

The Assembly has expanded the ways it engages with the public during the pandemic, including live streaming committee meetings and encouraging the public to submit written testimony through its web portal. The Capitol building in Sacramento is open to the public for the meetings, but seating is limited—so the Assembly has strongly encouraged the call-in option.

The telephonic system hasn’t worked properly, however, leading some assembly members to call for its elimination. Other members say it’s still the best way for the public to engage at this time.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) introduced a plan on July 1 that would no longer allow people to call in to testify, but criticism by lobbyists and lawmakers prompted him to swiftly reverse course.

Jerry Brown Delivers California State Of The State Address in 2011
California Gov. Jerry Brown delivers the State of the State address at the California State Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., on Jan. 31, 2011. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

John Casey, a spokesperson for Rendon, told The Epoch Times that some phone callers had been disruptive by “shouting obscenities” and “raising their voices,” but “the bigger problems with the phone system had to do mainly with limitations of the system itself.

“People calling in to testify were sometimes commenting on the wrong bill, sometimes supporting a bill they wished to oppose and vice-versa, being disconnected, calling in multiple times on the same issue,” he said.

Ultimately, Rendon decided “it is better to err on the side of access,” Casey said, because “public comment is an integral part of the committee process.”

Assemblyman Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin) told The Epoch Times that he’s firmly against any proposal to eliminate public call-in testimony.

Lawmakers against call-in testimony say it “disrupts the flow of the hearing,” according to Kiley.

“It’s basically the typical mentality that any right of the public to participate is viewed as a nuisance, when that should be what we’re all about,” Kiley said. “It’s the essence of democracy.”

Casey said “there are now more methods of participation than before the pandemic” for members of the public.

“Even if we would have eliminated phone access, people still can participate in person, in writing, and by remote testimony through the use of secure video testimony terminals located throughout the state,” he said.

Kiley said he is moving forward with a resolution that would guarantee the right of public testimony in the rules of the Assembly “so they can’t just arbitrarily take away the public’s right to access again.”

“I immediately announced a resolution to reverse the decision and assure the public still can testify, and that led the speaker by the end of the day to reverse himself and say that they’re going to still allow it,” Kiley said.

A July 7 draft of the resolution obtained by The Epoch Times states that “the public shall be allowed to provide legislative testimony via telephone or alternative remote access technology at any meeting of a standing committee or subcommittee.”

The resolution must first go before the rules committee, Kiley said. If it passes, from there it would go to the Assembly floor for approval.

“We have not been able to introduce it this week because the Capitol is closed,” Joshua Hoover, Kiley’s chief of staff, told The Epoch Times via email. “We will be introducing it at the first opportunity we have.”

The Assembly is currently on hiatus until further notice after five people who work there, including Assemblywoman Autumn Burke (D-Inglewood), tested positive for COVID-19. The Assembly was scheduled to return from summer recess on July 13.