VALLEJO – For the second time in four months, the Vallejo City Council has decided to resume in-person meetings amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tuesday's unanimous decision reverses a council action from last month that moved all council meetings to return to an online-only format as COVID-19 cases surged over the past few months due to the omicron variant.
The city council, along with all other board and commission meetings in the city, will begin meeting in-person starting on March 8.
A handful of council members argued Tuesday night that it was time for the council to move back to in-person gatherings.
“I think that we need to be at city hall. I realize people are very concerned but at the same time we can’t continue to just do business as we’re doing,” said Councilmember Mina Loera-Diaz, District 3.
Loera-Diaz said that residents want to see the council in one place. She further said that the city can leave its mask mandate in place and take additional precautions by blocking out every other seat in the council chambers for social distancing.
“We have a job to do and I really think that we do a better job when we do it as it was intended to be done, which is, to be down there,” Loera-Diaz said.
Vice Mayor Rozzana Verder-Aliga, District 1, agreed with Loera-Diaz.
“We are public servants and we signed up for this job, and we do it because we want to serve the public and we want to be present, not just on screen, but in person,” Verder-Aliga said.
Verder-Aliga also addressed the issue of whether persons should be vaccinated before entering the council chambers.“They know the risks if they’re not vaccinated,” she said.
In response to questions from Mayor Robert McConnell, Malone said that the council would be the appropriate authority to require persons to be vaccinated before entering the council chambers. Interim Assistant City Manager Terrance Davis also answered questions about disinfecting the chambers. He said the city does daily sanitation on all high contact areas in city hall.
City staff made no formal recommendation on whether the council should return to in-person meetings or continue meeting remotely. But Interim City Manager Mike Malone revealed that as of Tuesday, 70 city employees had been infected with COVID this year. Malone said previously that the city had a total of 60 employees infected during 2021.
“The frequency has started to decrease, but we are still having employees come up positive,” said Malone.
Malone said that some commission and board members expressed concern about returning to in-person meetings. Delaying a return to in-person meetings until March was necessary to allow enough time for the city to transition back, as several commission and board meeting agendas over the next few weeks have already been released to the public. Staff argued it would be problematic to release new agendas in that time frame.
Malone said Vallejo residents account for about 32% of the COVID cases in Solano County.
Tuesday’s decision is part of a new state law which requires municipalities to vote every 30 days on whether it needs to continue holding meetings remotely.
The council’s decision comes a day after state officials announced that they would be lifting a statewide indoor mask requirement on Feb. 15.
Vallejo continues to be under a mask mandate that requires people 4 years and older to wear a face covering over their nose and mouth while inside any buildings open to the public.
Last October, the council voted to return to in-person meetings starting in November after meeting remotely for more than 18 months.
Council picks new district boundaries map
Also during Tuesday’s meeting, the council adopted a new district boundaries map, albeit not without a bit of drama.
The trouble began when the council approved one draft map during the meeting but then reversed course later in the meeting when it was discovered that the city’s demographer had provided incorrect data.
Most of the council discussion Tuesday night centered on 293 residents who needed to be moved from District 5 - Central Vallejo to District 6 - South Vallejo to correct a non-contiguous issue with District 6 located around sections of unincorporated parts of the city.
The complication revolves around when the two districts are on the ballot as District 6 was on the 2020 ballot with those living in District 5 having a chance to vote on picking a council member this November. The change in boundary lines means that those residents, who last voted for council in November 2018, won’t be able to vote until November 2024 when District 6 is again on the ballot.
Following this revelation during the council’s previous meeting, the city’s demographer, National Demographics Corporation, presented a second draft of the map (Map B) on Tuesday which was touted as lessening the impact by moving 267 District 5 residents to District 6.
The council originally approved Map B but was told later in the meeting that the first map, presented to the council last meeting (Map A), would actually be the map to pick if the council was attempting to lessen the impact and only move 267 residents as opposed to the 293. The error came to light after Ken Chawkins with National Demographics Corporation reviewed the provided data following the council’s first vote.
This is the second error by National Demographics Corporation. Last month, the demographer provided the council with incorrect population numbers for the city.
Chawkins said districts are composed of census blocks not by street. He said moving the nearly 300 residents to another district would make the map unbalanced by population and therefore unlawful.
Loera-Diaz said the affected area is around Wilson Park, Benicia Road, and Curtola Parkway.
“I wish there were a better answer. We looked at it a number of ways,” Chawkins said.
People were also upset when the council approved the first district boundary map in July 2019. The council deadlocked 3-3 when voting on two different draft maps. Councilmember Hakeem Brown, at large, was absent from that July 2019 council meeting. The issue was resolved when then-Mayor Bob Sampayan changed his vote, giving the necessary fourth vote for selection of the district boundary map used during the November 2020 election.
The map the council ultimately adopted was drawn by Loera-Diaz and several other residents, including former council candidate Latressa Wilson Alford, Tiffanee Jones, and Rhonda Renfro.
Vallejo decided to adopt council districts after receiving a challenge letter from Southern California based-lawyer Kevin Shenkman in September 2018. Shenkman argued that the city’s at-large election format violated the California Voting Rights Act because there were no African American or Latino councilmembers on the council.
“African American and Latino residents that each make up nearly a quarter of the city have no one to speak to and for their struggles at the city government level,” Shenkman wrote in his Sept. 17, 2018, letter. “And their struggles are unique, and are exacerbated by the fact that they have no voice on the council.”
Months after the city received the letter, Vallejo voters elected Brown, who is Black, to the council. The Vallejo electorate also sent two Hispanic residents to the council in November 2020: Loera-Diaz, and Cristina Arriola, who represents District 6.
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