We sent an email regarding virtual public commenting to Mayor Finley and City Council members on August 5, 2021. With cases of Covid rising, we think the city needs to reconsider its discontinuation of Zoom and/or other methods to provide public comments virtually. As of today, August 9, we have not received a reply from the mayor or council members. Virtual comments, recording meetings, and archiving are supposed to be discussed in the upcoming work session on August 18.
Good afternoon Mayor Finley and Council,
The resurgence of Covid in our community warrants a return to virtual public commenting. In a global pandemic, residents should not have to put their health at risk to engage and participate in their local government. We have been looking into using Zoom since late last year. The Governor's emergency order gave exceptions to governing bodies. It allowed them to conduct certain business virtually. And, yes, the emergency order has ended, but we have yet to find a law or language written anywhere that prohibits a city from utilizing virtual platforms for public participation. Zoom and other virtual options are prohibited for officials because it prevents them from conducting business in the most open way. It would violate the Alabama Open Meetings Act.
Council President Greg Shaw said in a recent meeting that Tuscaloosa and Auburn ended their use of Zoom for the public when the emergency order ended. That is not the case. Both cities are currently utilizing virtual options, including Zoom, and Tuscaloosa never stopped using them. Auburn may have stopped briefly then returned, but we do not yet have confirmation that is the case [Edit: Council President Shaw was correct about Auburn discontinuing Zoom. This was an error on our part]
We hope that the team assembled to look into the issues of public comments, recording, and archiving will do it's due diligence when finding information and will have the interest of the city as a whole in mind when making decisions. If there is a law that makes utilizing virtual options for public comments illegal, we request that it be presented to us and the citizens of Madison.
The top of the City Council meeting agenda currently states, "If Members of the Public Would Like to Weigh in on a Council Matter, But Do Not Want to Attend Due to Concerns About the Pandemic, Then They May Contact the City Clerk’s Office or Mayor’s Office."
We have contacted the clerk but received no response as to how we may weigh in on a council matter if not in attendance. We are aware that we may email our council representative at any time, but will our comments be read publicly during the council meeting? An important part of public comments is that they are part of the permanent, public record.
We also want to mention that captions via Zoom are pretty accurate. Whatever captioning program was used at the last meeting was horrendous. A lot of the captions were utter nonsense. They were not useful at all, and every time Councilperson Powell said, "flood" the caption read "f***".
I Vote Madison, Co-founder
In early February of this year, the mayor and council agreed to provide Zoom as an option for residents to view city council meetings and also make public comments during the meetings. This was at the request of I Vote Madison and community members.
Some city leaders have expressed the attitude that if the community cared enough they would come to meetings. There are, however, a multitude of reasons why a resident of Madison cannot make it to a council meeting. They include health, disability, conflicts with work, and caregiving responsibilities. For this post, we'll focus on health.
We are in the middle of a pandemic. A variant of Covid-19, the Delta Variant, is affecting our area of the country and our state is in competition with our neighbor Mississippi for the state with the lowest vaccination rates. Our county is doing much better than some in our state, but residents have a legitimate reason to be concerned and to want to limit their contact, especially indoors, with other people. Schools in our city are requiring teachers, staff, and students to wear masks indoors and many businesses are reinstating their mask requirements. Our immunocompromised neighbors are not able to receive vaccinations, so attending city council meetings at this time could be a bigger health risk for them than others. Should the residents of Madison have to to risk their health to make public comments at meetings on city matters? We absolutely do not think so, especially since the technology is available.
When we first asked last year that residents be able to use Zoom, it was relayed to us that it went against the state's Sunshine Laws (these laws are called the Alabama Open Meetings Act and are in place to make sure government officials are not conducting business in the dark but before the public eye). We directed the council's attention to Governor Kay Ivey's emergency proclamation which even made an exception for governing bodies so they could conduct essential city business or business related to Covid-19 over virtual platforms like Zoom. Allowing citizens to use virtual technology to view meetings and comment publicly is not a violation of the Alabama Open Meetings Act. We are curious as to why the city purchased additional Zoom accounts in the Spring of 2020 if they weren't aware of the governor's emergency proclamation. Council was prepared to use Zoom to allow officials to tune in remotely when they were out sick with Covid-19, and they did so during the Fall. If they knew it was even okay for them to vote on essential city business virtually, surely they knew letting the public use Zoom was allowed.
Why did it take our organization and other community members pushing council and the mayor for months to get this accommodation? With the exception of Councilperson Karen Denzine, who has been a champion for transparency and utilizing technology to provide it, we have had little support from council and the mayor.
At a recent city council meeting, it was announced that a team had been assembled to conduct research into using virtual commenting as well as recording and archiving meetings. This team includes Councilperson Bartlett and Seifert as well as the city's attorney and city clerk. We are curious as to why Councilperson Denzine was excluded from the team. She has been an advocate for these things and even showed initiative previously by doing her own research, which included reaching out to other Alabama cities. The team is supposed to discuss their findings at the next work session on August 18.
The words and inaction of the mayor and most council members continually show they are not only not prioritizing transparency and accessibility, but they don't think it provides much benefit to the city. We are not hopeful right now that efforts will be made to increase transparency and accessibility, and we remain perplexed by the attitudes of our city officials on these matters, especially since several ran on a platform of increased transparency.