BY JENNIFER CABRERA / JULY 30, 2019
Omichele Gainey’s op-ed, published on The Gainesville Sun’s website today, claims to present new policies that will allow “improved communications and meaningful engagement with city residents both inside and outside City Hall.”
It is a fact that Alachua County Commission meetings are much more congenial than Gainesville City Commission meetings. I have watched numerous meetings of both bodies, and many of the same citizens speak to both commissions. At county meetings, Chair Chestnut graciously welcomes citizens. If a citizen requests that an item be removed from the consent agenda, a commissioner will often move to do that, and the commission will often vote for that motion. If a citizen asks a question, Chestnut often asks staff to find an answer and respond to the citizen. Mayor Poe usually responds to citizen statements in stony silence (unless they come from children) and often cuts them off (Chestnut usually allows them to at least finish their sentence). City commissioners smirk and roll their eyes while citizens are speaking. County commissioners are generally attentive and polite. Since the same citizens are present at both meetings, the problem does not seem to be with the citizens but instead with the commissioners and their attitudes toward citizen input.
In response to multiple suggestions from citizens to model city policies on county policies, Gainey writes, “We heard those calls and made modifications to our report accordingly.” However, I don’t see a lot of overlap between the proposed policies and county policies.
Her suggestions mainly involve moving citizen comment from oral comment at the meetings to written comment behind the scenes (“[incorporated]… into the record”). Off-handedly, she mentions “adjustments to the civility and decorum clause” and “modifications to the way electronic communications are published.”
It turns out that the city is planning to stop publishing commissioners’ emails. While the system is imperfect (Commissioner Ward is getting tired of hearing about how the county does it better, but the county publishes all emails to and from commissioners; the system is clunky and not nearly as user-friendly as the city’s, but at least it’s complete), it at least offers a window into the problems citizens are bringing to the commission. The main problem with the city’s system is that commissioners have to specifically publish emails to the archive, so the archive is not complete.
Gainey writes, “the unintended consequences of the current model far outweigh the benefits to residents,” but those consequences are not unforeseen or unintended. All communications with government officials are public; while not all citizens may realize this, it’s not anything specific to Gainesville. More importantly, the benefits to residents are immense. While Gainey emphasizes that citizens (and the press) can still request emails through public records requests, the email archives often expose issues that can be explored through further public records requests. If we don’t know a record exists, we won’t know to request it. This policy makes it easier for city government to go about its business without interference from citizens. A government that claims to be “Citizen centered,” as Gainesville does, should be going the opposite direction and making it easier for citizens to see what is going on.
The city commission will be discussing these new rules at their meeting on August 8. The specific rules haven’t been published yet, but citizens may want to show up to the city commission meeting on August 1 (before public comment is further limited) and/or the General Policy Committee meeting on August 8, or they may want to contact the commissioners by email (firstname.lastname@example.org), mail, or phone to request that the city expand citizen comment and access to city emails.