An al.com article was published this week about our efforts to bring more transparency and accessibility to Madison City government. The author communicated with Mayor Finley about our petition. This blog post contains our thoughts on those portions of the article.
From the article:
“Finley said city leaders don’t see practices such as live streaming meetings on Facebook as productive. Live commenting and questions by viewers as meetings were under way would be at the least distracting, the mayor said.”
We understand how the mayor and council would be distracted if THEY were on Facebook while conducting a meeting. Livestreaming to Facebook is not for them, however. It is about the residents of Madison they were elected to serve. It is about reaching and engaging community members where they are, and many are on Facebook. 9,451 people follow the city's Facebook page. When the city goes live on Facebook, residents receive a notification which would remind them about the meeting or grab the attention of people who may never have tuned into a council meeting previously. The city has the means necessary to do this.
Any comments on a Facebook Livestream would be for residents also. It’s a way for residents to engage with one another. We are not suggesting the city pull comments and questions from Facebook comments to use as formal public comments during the meeting. That sounds like a logistical nightmare. These comments could, however, serve as a good resource that the mayor and council could use following a meeting to see what residents are thinking.
Would citizens who choose to watch the meeting live on Facebook be distracted by comments and questions from other residents or any other activity on Facebook? Perhaps, but we do not think it is the job of the mayor or city council to babysit the residents of Madison. We trust the people of Madison to regulate their own attention spans, and we think residents should be free to carry on their personal business however they see fit while they are watching meetings remotely.
During a council meeting at the beginning of the year, the mayor said that recording and archiving meetings is not the most beneficial thing the city has ever done. However, if the mayor is concerned about residents or council members missing anything during the meeting, recording and archiving meetings is an excellent solution.
I Vote Madison easily figured out how to livestream the city’s YouTube livestream onto our Facebook page, and it is free. We plan to continue to do this for residents if the city will not.
Also from the article:
“Madison Mayor Paul Finley said today the study committee is looking at the entire issue of managing the communication of information from City Hall. The city’s practices meet state legal requirements now and records meetings, town halls and updates from Finley and posts those recordings on the city YouTube page. Council meetings are up for a minimum of two weeks until the council approves the official minutes.”
I Vote Madison has not accused the city of neglecting to meet legal requirements related to public comments, recording, or archiving meetings, but is that as high as we set the bar?
We are even happy to acknowledge that the city goes beyond what is legally required. Here are four examples:
If the city did the bare minimum to meet legal requirements, residents would have to walk inside city hall to a prominent billboard in order to read city announcements. That’s right, the Alabama Open Meetings Act does not legally require cities to place information, including formal meeting announcements, on the internet or even at multiple physical locations around the city.
The city also is not required to livestream meetings. Madison was leading the way when it began livestreaming in 2008.
Video recordings of meetings are also not required. This is something the city finally agreed to provide this year after I Vote Madison and other residents pushed them to do so. Residents had been asking for this years before I Vote Madison was formed. The mayor and council decided recordings will only be online for a minimum of two weeks.
The mayor mentioned during a city council meeting (when the two week minimum was being discussed) that he wanted residents to be able to focus on what the city is doing currently and not past meetings. City issues, however, are not discussed and decided on in a single meeting. It can take two meetings or a handful that span multiple months. We have already seen that making meeting recordings available for longer periods has benefitted not only residents but city leaders. One city council member has rewatched portions of a meeting recording that was only available through I Vote Madison in order to relay an accurate accounting of a meeting to another city leader. The written records, which ARE a legal requirement, are not transcripts of meetings, so in order to accurately recall information, including quotes from city leaders, employees, or residents, one must rely on memory. Would it not be better for the people who make decisions for our city to have accurate information to use when making those decisions?
Town Hall meetings were mentioned in the article as being recorded and available on YouTube. One of those did not remain available. A council member reached out to I Vote Madison to request our recording. We were happy to oblige.
And about the mayor wanting residents to be able to pay attention to current meetings and not former ones: Again, we trust that the people of Madison can regulate their own attention spans. We also think they should have the freedom to digest as much information as they desire and should not have to be unnecessarily inconvenienced to do so, especially when the city can provide the information for no additional cost or effort. City employees are spending more time and effort removing recordings after two weeks than they would be if they left them on YouTube indefinitely.
Unlike comments during public hearings, it is not a legal requirement per Alabama law that cities must allow citizens to make general public comments. The city can legally remove the public comment portion entirely from city council meetings.
I Vote Madison thinks that simply meeting legal requirements should not be where the city sets the bar, and we have a feeling most residents would not be happy with the city only meeting legal requirements when it comes to public notices and the option for public comments at meetings. When our city is lagging behind many other cities in Alabama, we do not understand why the city is not eager to use the resources it already has to make improvements.
I Vote Madison also thinks our elected city officials, especially the ones who put so much emphasis during their campaigns on their promises to provide transparency, should make use of the resources they have to provide transparency and make participation in local government more accessible to residents. District 6 Councilperson Karen Denzine is the only council member who has been an outspoken and continued champion for transparency and accessibility. The author of the article relayed Mayor Finley’s thoughts on these matters but nothing from city council. City Council, not the mayor, is the governing body that has the power to make the changes we have been proposing.
We have been asking the city for these things for ten months. The mayor mentioned months ago that if recording and archiving meetings was what citizens and council wanted, it would be factored into the budget. The city has the money and has an IT department and a communications department.
It is no longer a matter of whether the city CAN provide these things but a matter of the city REFUSING to offer them.
If you are a Madison resident who thinks you deserve transparency from your elected officials and accessible means of being engaged in local government, please sign our petition.
In the al.com article, the author references an upcoming meeting. That meeting was the work session held Wednesday, August 18. The team that was formed to research communications presented their findings about public comment options at that meeting. I Vote Madison is currently preparing statements about that meeting. Work sessions are open to the public but not livestreamed or recorded. Founder Tara Bailey attended the work session to record. View it here.