Irvine residents have regained the opportunity to directly address members of the Irvine City Council in real time, after the council voted unanimously to expand public participation at meetings with the implementation of Zoom.

The decision, finalized on Tuesday, Jan. 12, ends the absence of live, real-time public comments during City Council meetings in Irvine.

Public attendance was halted in March, when City Hall shut down due to COVID-19.

Because of the pandemic, Irvine residents have been limited in participation, as the only method currently available to the public is the submission of 500 character e-comments, which are accessed via the city’s website. The e-comments are read aloud during the meetings, during the public comment portion of each agenda item.

Irvine City Attorney Jeff Melching explained that prior to the governor’s stay-at-home order, allowing in-person participation was required, and there were strict regulations surrounding the use of remote teleconferencing methods in meetings.

“In the wake of the governor’s executive order, clearly the rule has been remote attendance and those prior restrictions on electronic access have been substantially loosened,” Melching said. “To be very pointed about what is required now, what is required is an opportunity for the public to observe and participate by electronic means.”

Last year, on Nov. 20, the previous City Council voted to continue the discussion, in order for Irvine’s newly elected officials to participate in the decision.

On Tuesday, the council was presented two options – the first, including staying with the current method, but expanding the e-comment character limit from 500 to 1,000 characters. The e-comments would still be read aloud.

The second option carries three separate components, which included using Zoom or pre-recorded voice memos, in which the public could submit comments via telephone, prior to meetings. Additionally, the second option also includes the expansion of the e-comment character limit.

Interim City Clerk Carl Petersen broke down the second option, which offers multiple components, including using Zoom during meetings.

“Option 2A would be using Zoom or a similar platform, requiring pre-registration,” Petersen explained. “A caller would pre-register with their information, by a specific time, and city staff would return their call once their item is before the City Council.”

Vice Mayor Tammy Kim said she was excited to give Irvine residents a chance for their voices to be heard.

“For me, personally, I’ve had experience calling in myself at the state level,” Kim said. “I believe that having residents be able to speak and comment in their own voice is very impactful and very empowering so I’m very excited to see these various proposals.”

City Council member Larry Agran, who has yet to attend a meeting in person due to COVID-19, emphasized that Irvine should provide as many possible methods for the public to address the council. Agran suggested increasing the e-comment character limit, in addition to implementing Zoom.

“In my view, probably the chief responsibility of City Council members is to facilitate public participation, not just hear ourselves talk and do what’s convenient for ourselves, but to listen to as many people as possible,” Agran said via Zoom during Tuesday’s meeting. “I’ve been frustrated, myself, with the hybrid model we have, where council member participation is totally inadequate. Frankly, I prefer we go to an all Zoom meeting — in the interest of public safety, and setting a good example.”

With a motion brought forth by Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan, the Irvine City Council decided to vote on option 2, while including the addition of character expansion to the e-comment section.

“I would move for us to select option 2, which includes e-comment, people can still email the council, in addition, we will add the opportunity for Zoom call in for public comments,” Khan said. “I think if we can expand the character limit on e-comments, let’s go ahead and do that.”

The e-comment section character expansion will take place immediately. In terms of the other changes, Irvine residents can expect Zoom comments to be implemented in time for the next City Council meeting on Jan. 26.