By Heather Morgan, Co-founder
Tara Bailey, founder of I Vote Madison, spoke during the April 28, 2021 meeting of the Alabama Local Government Records Commission to discuss local government's use of video recordings to document meetings.
Skip to Bailey's comments
Watch the meeting (Bailey speaks beginning at 00:4:30)
I Vote Madison has been championing for Madison's city council meetings to be recorded and archived (or at least be placed on a platform like YouTube indefinitely). These efforts are part of our work to make local government more accessible to residents and, in turn, have citizens who are more civically engaged in our community. Our organization is guided by the belief that every citizen deserves to be heard and that pathways to voter engagement and participation should be free of hurdles. When information is easily accessible, citizens can be more involved with their local government and take part in shaping their own communities.
The Alabama Local Government Record's Commission is part of Alabama's Department of Archives and History. It issues guidelines regarding local government records, including what to retain or what to destroy. It is made up of 16 members, 12 of which are appointed by the governor. Members include various city and county officials and representatives, including two city clerks, one school superintendent, a county sheriff, and a county taxation official. Employees in these various positions attend commission meetings, but this meeting marked the first time a citizen's perspective and voice had been shared.
The Commission invited Bailey to speak after she reached out to the Department of Archives and History with many questions regarding city record keeping and the Commission's role in that. Her questions were thoroughly addressed ahead of the meeting and those in the meeting were receptive to her comments.
I Vote Madison is interested in how guidance coming from the state level could help citizens get more access to local records, including recordings of city meetings. The Local Government Records Commission does not make decisions about what kind of record a government body has to create; instead, they decide what should be retained and for how long. At present, however, video recordings of meetings are not included. If a city does decide to create recordings of meetings, they have full discretion as to how long they retain the recording or whether to keep it at all. And if they do keep a recording, they are not obligated to make it public.
The Commission periodically updates their guidelines, including best practices for writing meeting minutes. According to an agenda for a meeting of the Commission later this year, video recordings will be part of the discussion.
I Vote Madison's work has resulted in the city of Madison recording city council meetings, but the city has decided to only make them available to the public for two weeks. Our organization will continue to keep video recordings of the meetings. These are available to the public via our YouTube channel. We have provided timestamps for convenience.
I Vote Madison thinks cities should value citizen participation and place priority on the transparency and accessibility needed for residents to be engaged with their local government. Tara Bailey wants local governments to utilize the the technology available to record public meetings and make them available to the public for at least five years. This will allow citizens to review the work their elected officials have done over that official's full term of office.
A video of the meeting can be watched here (Bailey speaks at 00:4:30)
Below is Tara Bailey's complete statement to the Local Government Records Commission:
I live in Madison, AL with my husband and three young daughters. Back in October of 2020, together with my Co-Founder, Heather Morgan, we started a nonpartisan community group called I Vote Madison. Our mission is to increase voter participation in Madison, AL by helping residents navigate local government. We envision a Madison shaped by empowered citizens. I’d like to start out by thanking you for the work you do and allowing me to speak at your commission meeting today.
I live in Madison, AL with my husband and three young daughters. Back in October of 2020, together with my Co-Founder, Heather Morgan, we started a nonpartisan community group called I Vote Madison. Our mission is to increase voter participation in Madison, AL by helping residents navigate local government. We envision a Madison shaped by empowered citizens.
Today, I will be outlining the reasons why meetings currently being live streamed and recorded by City Councils across the state should have a retention requirement of a minimum of 5 years.
Creating this minimum retention requirement of 5 years would allow citizens the opportunity to research decisions made by their City Council Representatives within at least one election cycle. Not having these recordings puts voters at a disadvantage as they must rely on meeting minutes that do not always offer the same detail and context as can be gained through watching a video recording of a meeting. An educated voter is a smart voter and is more likely to make an informed decision for the benefit of the community outside of political party propaganda.
Unlike national elections, which get more than a 60% voter turnout, municipal elections average less than 30%. In the last local election in Madison, AL, the turnout was 22%. In some Alabama cities it is as low as 10%. Citizens are not engaging with their local government at high rates although the decisions local officials make impact their lives on a daily basis. There are many reasons participation is low:
A lack of knowledge about how local government works
A lack of awareness about how to become involved
A lack of time and/or resources to attend city council meetings and other forums
A distrust of local government due to a lack of transparency
A negative view of politicians and politics in general, which at the state and federal levels are divisive
The belief that one is not able to make a difference
Not recording and retaining these meetings exacerbates these factors of disenfranchisement. Conversely, providing video recordings of city meetings addresses each of these reasons and in turn will increase public participation in local government.
The current section of the Code of Alabama 1975 § 36- 25A-4 stipulates that a municipality must document the proceedings of all meetings held by municipal office. As you are aware this is currently being done through saving meeting minutes. Sadly, some municipalities leave out important details in the minutes which leaves citizens without the whole context of the conversation that led to their representative voting a certain way on an issue.
When COVID-19 struck in March of 2020, we saw some cities who hadn’t previously recorded their City Council Meetings do so in order to keep citizens informed, without being put at risk of catching COVID-19. The same thing happened with many churches across our State as those who didn’t already stream their services decided to do so. As a mother of three young girls including a set of two year old twins, my time is limited. Add COVID-19 into the mix and you can see why I have chosen not to attend in-person meetings. The availability of having these meetings to watch not only as a live stream, but when I find the time to do so, is important for me to stay involved with our community.
I, as well as other citizens in Madison, AL, have been working with the Madison City Council and Mayor to lay out some guidelines for video recordings of meetings. In order to gain a better understanding and idea of best practices I did some research into how cities across Alabama record and archive their videos of meetings and found that out of the top twenty most populated cities, the city of Alabaster is the only one that does not currently record and archive their meetings in at least some capacity. Most of these cities have been making their meeting recordings available to their citizens for multiple years with Birmingham starting around 14 years ago. Currently our City Council in Madison, AL has decided to make the City Council video recordings available for two weeks or until the meeting minutes have been approved. That is just not long enough.
There have already been instances of Madison City Council meeting recordings being deleted, such as the one taken on January, 25th 2021, which included Ralph Nelson, CEO and President of the Trash Pandas. In that recording, Mr. Nelson presented to the City Council outlining the revenue generated in 2020 even though they were unable to play one game of baseball due to COVID-19 and minor league baseball being cancelled for 2020. Mr. Nelson recently announced his resignation, which has understandably caused some discussion amongst the citizens of Madison. Citizens should have access to this recording so that they can have a better understanding of the situation. This is especially true since over $40 million dollars in taxpayer money went into building the stadium where the Trash Pandas will soon be playing.
It is my hope that cities across Alabama will continue to move in the direction of live streaming and recording their meetings as the technology continues to become simpler and less expensive than in previous years. In a time where we can take video recordings on our cell phones and upload them to free platforms like YouTube and Facebook, we should also be able to view our City Council meetings in the same way.
Although technology has come a long way, many smaller cities may need some guidance in best practices for recording videos of their meetings and making them available either directly through their website or through YouTube or Facebook. Once they have this process set up, the time and resources it takes to make this happen should not be too demanding. Organizations like the Alabama League of Municipalities and the Alabama Department of Archives and History could play an important role in training cities on best practices for recording and retaining their meetings.
I’m hoping my comments here today will result in a decision to set these retention requirements for livestreamed and recorded City meetings.
Thank you for your time and I am happy to answer any questions you may have.