At our last City Council Meeting there was a contentious discussion about providing public comment. But the problem of transparency and public engagement is actually far more profound and I am concerned that the discussion made it seem more trivial than it is.
There is no obvious way for a member of the public to become aware of the existence of committee meetings, what they do, their agendas, or how to attend. And the recent new web site actually makes this situation worse.
How about a quick example?
Let’s say a member of the public actually wanted to attend this week’s Economic Development Committee Meeting or just learn what is on the Agenda. (They’re discussing Marina Redevelopment, so I’d highly recommend it.)
1. They would start by going to the City web site:
There’s no mention of their existence on the home page. And this week’s meetings don’t appear on the home page calendar.
2. OK, so maybe someone told me of their existence and suggested I attend. I have some initiative so I do a search for ‘Committee Meeting’
The URL is totally cockamamie, but the search results are there. So far so good.
3. Now click on Economic Development Committee Agendas. Good.
4. Now click on the link to the 27 May meeting. You get the PDF. Even better.
5. Now click the link in the PDF to attend the meeting.
OK, so at that point a lot of people would simply give up. But let’s say you’re persistent. And luckily, you’ve been told by someone else… or were ambitious enough to phone or email the City for help… They would tell you that the way to go is…
6. Enter a GENERAL COUNCIL COMMENT FORM (again with no mention of ‘committee’.)
(And again with the cockamamie URL)
7. Or… if you’re really The Amazing Kreskin you might stumble upon the new ‘Council Portal’ and see that calendar.
Unfortunately, the current week’s meetings aren’t there either.
In one sentence
This bears repeating: there is no obvious way for a member of the public to become aware of the existence of committee meetings, what they do, their agendas, or how to attend.
It’s one thing to not to take public comment at committee meetings. It’s another to not want those meetings recorded. But to make a public meeting so difficult to even learn about… let alone attend… in the age of Zoom… sends an obvious message of what we value. It tells the public that the City does not consider their participation in, or even awareness of, the Committee process, of importance.
And then there is the Search problem…
One last nerdish-sounding detail that you actually should pay attention to: almost all city documents are in PDFs which are non-searchable.
What that means is that their content is not part of the Search system.
So if a member of the public wants to know about any action of the Council or Administration, ever, they would need to be either psychic, tediously go through a zillion documents one by one or do a Public Records Request and… wait at least a week for an answer. There is simply no immediate way for the public to learn about almost any Council activity without manually opening document after document after document after document.
Let’s try a Search on “Passenger Ferry”
Gee. I guess nobody in the City ever thought of discussing a passenger ferry before.
I think it is unacceptable for the City to provide such poor access to information about your government. And I honestly do not understand how anyone can say that they are confident in their knowledge of how our City is doing until these issues are resolved.
So I will continue to strongly advocate for improvements to make it easier for you to find out about your government and to participate in its decision making.