Los Gatos Weekly Times

Saratoga council votes to continue meeting virtually after tense debate

- By Hannah Kanik hkanik@ bayareanew­sgroup.com

Saratoga City Council had a tense, hourlong conversati­on at its April 6 meeting about whether or not to return to in-person council meetings, in which some councilmem­bers were visibly frustrated.

Council ultimately voted 3-2, with Vice Mayor Kookie Fitzsimmon­s and Councilmem­ber Marylynne Bernald opposed, to keep meetings virtual due to safety concerns and some councilmem­bers' unwillingn­ess to risk spreading COVID-19. The split vote came after the second discussion of the issue in the past month and includes council, commission and committee meetings.

“For me it comes back to requiring the commission­ers volunteers, not knowing their comfort level, to come and meet in a conference room every single meeting. That is my very big concern, my sense of responsibi­lity,” Mayor Tina Walia said.

Council spent a lengthy amount of time discussing the topic at the March 2 meeting where they reached a similar conclusion to have meetings remain virtual.

The item was included in the consent calendar of the April 6 meeting agenda, which typically groups together smaller items to be

voted on all at once. Bernald motioned to remove the item from the consent calendar for further discussion.

Council has been meeting virtually since the start of the pandemic. COVID-19 cases are declining, and Santa Clara County no longer requires masks in public spaces.

City clerk Britt Avrit said that next month, seven cities across the Bay Area will be meeting at a hybrid or in-person level, and eight will be meeting only virtually.

Bernald motioned to bring meetings back in person by May 18 with a hybrid option. Councilmem­ber Rishi Kumar said he was not comfortabl­e with in-person meetings because of the risk of spreading COVID-19, and made his own motion to keep meetings virtual, which the council put to a vote.

Fitzsimmon­s also brought up council's upcoming plan to host an in-person dinner with the Neighborho­od Watch group May 18 before that evening's council meeting, and said the optics of meeting in person for a dinner but virtually for the meetings was inconsiste­nt.

“I think if this plays out that city council will continue to meet virtually only, that if we all show up for the dinner on May 18 with the Neighborho­od Watch people, you know how that looks?” Fitzsimmon­s said. “That city council is okay to grab dinner with the public, sit shoulder to shoulder for however long, but they're not willing to sit in a theater that accommodat­es 300 people? It's inconsiste­nt; it doesn't feel right. It's mixed messages.”

Walia offered to make the dinner a virtual meeting to be consistent, and Kumar said that he would not feel comfortabl­e meeting in person for the dinner.

Cities are allowed by state law, AB 361, to meet remotely based on either an emergency proclamati­on made by Gov. Gavin Newsom or if local public health officials are recommendi­ng social distancing.

Under AB 361, the council must address the issue every 30 days to reaffirm that meetings will be held virtually or resume in-person meetings.

After the vote, the rest of the meeting moved quickly. Council terminated an agreement with the county for weed abatement services and authorized a contract with Union Pacific Railroad for the Blue Hills Elementary Pedestrian Crossing.

Council also gave direction to staff on the Capital Improvemen­t Program and fee schedule for the budget for fiscal year 2022-23, which will go to a public hearing June 1 and is set to be adopted on June 15.

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