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City commission will discuss changes to email archive, citizen comment

The meeting will be held at 1:00 on August 8 at the GRU Multi-Purpose Room, 301 Southeast 4th Avenue

BY JENNIFER CABRERA / AUGUST 6, 2019

The Gainesville City Commission will discuss a number of potential changes to its rules for citizen engagement at a meeting on August 8 at 1:00 at the GRU Multi-purpose room. You can download the agenda here; the agenda includes links to the presentation and the research paper developed by the Policy Oversight Administrator.

The city is aggressively pushing its talking point that the changes will enhance communication, but it’s not clear that this is the case. 

Changes to the email system

The first section of the paper deals with ways that the public can contact commissioners outside of meetings. They can currently leave a telephone message, write a letter, ask for a meeting, or send an email, either to a single commissioner or to the full commission (via the citycomm@cityofgainesville.org email address). The paper acknowledges that the current email system is not satisfactory because citizens are not sure that the email is received. Emails to the full commission are particularly problematic because communications between members of the commission outside of public meetings are not allowed by law. Possible solutions for the lack of acknowledgment of individual emails include requiring commissioners to set an auto-response or requiring commissioners to respond to citizen emails within a specific time frame. 

Regarding the citycomm email account, the paper says, “many messages receive no response or acknowledgement at all. These practices heighten emotion among the public and should be proactively addressed.” A footnote adds, “A recent ‘snapshot’ noted that of the 18 substantive constituent emails received through this inbox in one week, none had received any recorded responses.” Other solutions include having a web contact form, including a system that would track incoming emails and responses, and incorporating messages on commission business into the agenda as written public comment. 

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Elimination of the online email archive

As we’ve previously discussed, the paper also discusses discontinuing the online email archive that is currently provided: “Since late 2014, all emails read and sent by Commissioners on their @cityofgainesville.org accounts have been released online to the public every evening. This practice has an arguably chilling effect on communication with the Commission. Members of the public who understand that their messages and concerns will be publicly broadcast may be reluctant to send email. More often, though, members of the public are not aware of this practice until their message is already sent because there is no way to warn them on the front end. It is also clear that Commission email accounts have been targeted by spammers and others as a free source of advertising as their messages are publicly broadcast daily.”

This information is not quite correct. All emails are not released to the public every evening. The only messages that show up in the archive are those that have been “read and processed for publication” by a commissioner. Some commissioners have few messages in their public archives, and we have sent multiple messages to commissioners that never showed up in the archive. If the city commission decides to continue to publish an archive, that problem must be addressed. But in spite of the missing emails, the archive is still very useful to those of us who try to keep track of what’s going on at City Hall. 

The policy paper recommends either making no changes or using a web form instead of an email address to communicate with the whole commission; the web form would include a disclaimer letting citizens know that their messages will become a public record. The third option is to make incoming email to commissioners available via public records request. 

Public records requests for emails can be time-consuming for the city and expensive for the requester; having a public archive allows citizens and the press to browse the messages without having to making a public records request for every single email, every day. Public records requests to the city routinely go unanswered, and the Gainesville Sun stated on Saturday that it “currently has a three-week-old open request for emails from June to July for an estimated $67 after the system had publishing errors over the summer.” Charging for these requests also significantly raises the barriers to public engagement.

General public comment

The next section of the policy paper deals with general public comment (for people who wish to bring something not on that day’s agenda to the commission’s attention) at commission meetings. The current situation is that there are 3 citizen comment periods, at 1:00, 5:30, and at the end of the meeting, each lasting 30 minutes unless extended by commission vote. In each of the later periods, citizens who have not previously spoken during that meeting get first priority. The period at the end of the meeting is reserved for people who did not speak during the earlier periods. The options presented are: 1) No change and/or 2) Provide no citizen comment periods during the meeting and ask the public to use a different communication method and/or 3) Revisit the number of periods in which a citizen can speak at the same meeting and/or 4) Revisit the number of consecutive meetings at which a citizen can speak and/or 5) Accept general public comment via other methods (it is unclear how this is different from option 2).

We hope the commission will resist the temptations to remove all citizen comment or to prevent people from speaking at consecutive meetings. And while it may seem sensible to limit citizens to speaking at one period per meeting, this may have the undesired effect of causing speakers to wait until the end of the meeting, just in case something comes up that they think should be addressed. This will extend meetings that already routinely last over 9 hours and possibly bring up the most controversial topics when everyone is tired and grumpy. The policy paper tallied up the general public comment speakers for the commission meetings in May and June, but they simply multiplied the number of speakers by 3 minutes to get the time, and not all speakers use the full 3 minutes. Even so, the totals were 36 minutes, 57 minutes, 84 minutes, and 57 minutes. Given that the 3 comment periods add up to 90 minutes, nothing here seems out of line.

Public comment on agenda items

One of the proposed changes to public comment on agenda items seems worthy of consideration: the proposal is to allow speakers to make comments about all agenda items early in the meeting, so they don’t have to sit around for hours, waiting for that item to come up. Other options are to continue with current practices (citizens can speak once, for 3 minutes, on each agenda item) or remove the public comment period for agenda items. 

Other topics include having a system for citizens to sign up to speak (instead of the current informal first-come-first-served system) and a section on civility and decorum. The proposed changes for civility and decorum are vague, suggesting modifications to  “better align with existing commission and City Attorney concerns.” 

Gainesville: Citizen centered?

In his most recent campaign in 2016, Lauren Poe said, “And so we’re always looking for ways to improve, and one of my major initiatives in my last term on the commission is what we call open government, or government 2.0. That was really a process that’s still ongoing — of automating a lot of our city services, putting all of our public information out there in an easily accessible format…” 

Many of the proposed changes that will be discussed on Thursday seem to move government transparency in the opposite direction, and the city’s “Citizen centered” logo may become a symbol of unfulfilled campaign promises.

Citizens who wish to provide input to the commission can attend the meeting on August 8 or contact the commissioners through all of the methods described above. 

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