City of Gainesville struggles with citizen engagement and transparency during pandemic


The City of Gainesville, like every other governmental body in Florida, set up special rules that allowed them to meet virtually during the pandemic. However, their execution of these rules has limited (and, in some cases, eliminated) citizens’ rights to participate in their public meetings. This week, for example, the City sent out two revisions to their Notice of Meetings. Revision 2 came out yesterday, adding a new topic for Thursday’s Special Meeting of the City Commission (COVID-19) and violating their rule of locking down agendas 5 calendar days before a meeting.

The Notice of Meetings is available here, but most people use the Granicus site to learn about upcoming meetings, and not all of the meetings on the notice above are listed in Granicus.

One example is the Agenda Review meeting at 11:00 a.m. on Thursday. The last Agenda Review meeting was not streamed live, so citizens could not participate, and this week’s meeting is not listed on Granicus, where links to video streams are found. When virtual meetings are not streamed, there is no possibility of citizen participation.

In addition, the agenda for the City Commission Special Meeting (budget) on June 11 does not provide any information on how citizens can participate virtually. The Agenda Statement is the standard one that talks about rules for general public comment (which has been abolished since virtual meetings began) and early public comment (which has also been abolished) and talks about “the meeting room.” No phone number for giving public comment on agenda items is provided on the agenda. The phone number has been placed at the bottom of the video screen during meetings, but uncertainty about how to participate may be driving down public participation. Very few people have called in to the virtual meetings, in contrast to the much larger group that have been “regulars” over the past few years during in-person meetings.

The City has streamed a few meetings on Facebook, which many people find easier to work with than the City’s site, and Facebook has the added benefit of allowing viewers to make comments alongside the video. Although these comments aren’t seen by the commissioners and thus aren’t part of the meeting, citizens have the ability to ask questions of their fellow citizens. However, not only has the City stopped streaming their meetings on Facebook, they temporarily removed a meeting video that had earlier been available on Facebook. When Nathan Skop asked the City why they had taken down the video, along with its comments, which are public records, he received the following response:

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In part, the email from Communications Director Shelby Taylor reads, “Facebook, as a credentialed service, is a convenience platform for broadcast not an official channel for meeting access. It has become apparent over the last several weeks that our attempt to provide this service has given rise to hostility and vulgarity. As such, I have recommended to the City Manager that we no longer offer Facebook as a mechanism for meeting broadcasts.”

Alachua County streams all of its meetings on Facebook, and the videos with comments remain on the site. The County has also attracted more public participation in its virtual meetings than it normally gets in in-person meetings, in contrast to the City of Gainesville. Some County agenda items have taken the full 30 minutes of public comment, while City agenda items usually get one or two calls.