By Mike Lednovich
April 23, 2020
Our City’s Digital Democracy leaves the public ‘virtually’ silenced
Public comments are a vital component of city government where citizens have a voice in the decisions their elected officials are about to consider. It’s called the right of self governance.
Now the public’s right to be heard has been dealt a severe setback with the Fernandina Beach City Commission meeting virtually via Zoom as a result of the restrictions caused by the pandemic.
The April 7th meeting featured City Manager Dale Martin reading emails marked as “Public Comment” into the record. Unintentionally, several of those emails were missed and left unheard.
The April 21st meeting was even more restrictive. This time, the City Manager shared all email comments received by commissioners and left it up to each respective commissioner to read those emails they deemed noteworthy into the record.
Guess what,? Only one email was read into the record by Commissioner Chip Ross.
I had received 69 citizen emails during the two weeks between the meetings, the majority of those dealt with the debate over reopening of the City beaches. Most were in favor of reopening. As a commissioner, I was challenged by how was I going to determine which emails to read into the record while fairly reflecting both sides of the argument? The conclusion I arrived at is that I couldn’t without reading all of them.
It’s now obvious that this solution to hear the public is even less effective than the first attempt.
At the heart of this issue is the relationship between citizens and their local government. That relationship cannot be nurtured in “one way” communication where people cannot be heard or seen. Communications experts will tell you that 80% of all communication is non-verbal — the crossing of arms, a raised eyebrow, a smile or a scowl.
Imagine how many citizens would have showed up at City Hall to voice their concerns over the closed beaches.
Let’s face the facts, our current City Commission’s “Digital democracy” is merely propping up our traditional governance processes, but after two sessions we know it’s not a long-term substitute. Authentic democracy demands civic participation, engagement and relationship building. Online governance is a very ineffective and a poor replacement.
City Commissions and City Councils across the U.S. are wrestling with the same public engagement pitfalls as they meet digitally — causing concerns from a group of 100 media organizations in a letter to state governors.
“Government bodies should not opportunistically take advantage of the public’s inability to attend large gatherings to make critical decisions affecting the public’s interest if those decisions can reasonably be postponed.
“Just as citizens are being asked to defer nonessential travel and errands, so should government agencies defer noncritical policy-making decisions until full and meaningful public involvement can be guaranteed,” the letter stated.
Consider our two virtual City Commission meetings. About $600,000 in non-essential spending was approved, including $120,000 to fund Main Street even though the organization had City funding through the end of the year 2021.
Because of the limitations of the digital meeting, citizens did not hear from Main Street Executive Director Arlene Filkoff on why the organization was asking for funding thru the year 2024. She also did not have the opportunity to demonstrate the value of the Main Street program to the public. On the flip side, opponents of Main Street were also not heard publicly.
That’s a considerable communications vacuum.
Under the current virtual meeting format, citizens are unaware of the contents of emails received by commissioners and how those emails might impact our decision making.
Now the City Attorney is researching how various City Committees like the Planning Advisory Board and the Historic District Council can also leverage virtual meetings. The problem is with these committees is they hold Quasi Judicial Hearings that require public testimony. That’s a legal minefield that is rife with problems.
Many cities are taking advantage of Zoom’s ability to have citizens participate in their meetings via the application’s audio feed. It’s a step forward, but still not ideal.
Not matter what solutions are found, many folks are technology challenged or don’t have access.
These are difficult and challenging times we’ve never faced. We’re all trying to figure things out as we go along as best we can. Here are some solutions.
In early 2019, I raised the possibility to my fellow City Commissioners of following the City of Miami Lakes in using teleconferencing software to allow citizens to participate in meetings from home. The cost of the application was $500 a year. Only Vice Mayor Len Kreger saw the benefits of the technology, especially for the handicapped. The idea went nowhere.
We can reduce City Commission agendas to the bare essentials. That means making decisions that keeps the City running and providing essential services.
Or, invest in more advanced online meeting applications that are designed for large groups of guest speakers. The City has a crack IT Department and they should be able to identify the best application to accommodate the public.
As it currently exists, our City Commission meetings aren’t ‘public meetings,’ they’re television and that’s not good enough. On important issues, the people need to be seen and heard.