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Christopher Neely here, the Weekly’s newest staff writer, thinking about those rare silver linings offered by the virtual existence forced upon us by the pandemic.

As editor Sara Rubin wrote yesterday, the government’s migration over the last year toward virtual public meetings has had its ups and downs. Among the ups is the increased convenience of participation. Take the example of Keith Rootsaert, a local diver featured in a story I wrote for the print edition of the Weekly this week who, aided by virtual meetings, can now put “successful political organizer” on his resume.

Rootsaert, a Monterey Bay diver since the 1980s, has had a front-row seat to the deterioration of the Bay’s giant kelp forests. Data and recent studies show that over the better part of the last decade, the once-thick forests have been substantially thinned by a mix of damaging ocean-warming events and an exploding population of kelp-hungry purple sea urchins.

Back in 2017, Rootsaert, desperate to see the giant kelp forests restored, petitioned California’s Fish and Game Commission to amend state fishing rules and allow recreational divers to kill unlimited numbers of sea urchins. The commission rejected Rootsaert’s proposal. He went back in 2019. Nope. Then again in January 2020. Still no.

Two months later the pandemic took hold in the U.S. and this arcane, five-member state commission—that holds public meetings on an irregular schedule of weekday mornings in Sacramento—had to move its sessions online and offer a platform for virtual participation. Suddenly, weighing in at a commission meeting on a topic you cared about did not require forgoing a day of work or making a drive to the state capital. Folks could use their phones or laptops to voice their positions, from anywhere in the world.

Public government meetings run on an agenda; however, they often begin by allowing members of the public a few minutes each to air issues or topics not on the agenda—a sort of free-for-all. This is where Rootsaert seized his opportunity. He organized a group of divers and other stakeholders—a crew he estimated at over 100 people—to regularly sign up and call into the commission’s public comment section and lobby for the urchin amendment. Rootsaert, thrice rejected, was now wielding the tools of democracy to get commissioners to pay attention. 

Democracy prevailed. In December, the commission adopted Rootsaert’s amendment. This Thursday, April 1, the state will begin a limited pilot program that allows recreational divers at Tanker’s Reef—just off Del Monte Beach—to kill purple sea urchins, at-will, with hammers (“bashing them with a hammer” is actually the proper method of urchin hunting, says Rootsaert).

“I was told a hard no three times on this thing,” Rootsaert says. “The virtual meetings helped a lot. Suddenly, I didn’t have to drive to Sacramento anymore. It would have been impossible for me to go to all these meetings.”

As the vaccine rollout picks up and our “new normal” starts looking more like the old one, it will be interesting to see which pandemic-era modifications endure. When it comes to the public sector, a government for and by the people should welcome any changes that increase access and participation. After all, increased access and participation in government is why the Bay’s kelp forests may have a fighting chance.

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