The public should closely watch action to be taken on an item on the City Council agenda at Tuesday’s meeting.
The item, initiated by Mayor Stan Booker and Mayor Pro Tem Jay Burk, proposes moving council meetings from 6 p.m. to 2 p.m. The agenda item commentary cites “significant advancements” in the city’s ability to live stream meetings so the public can watch the meetings on their phones, tablets and other electronic devices.
We certainly see the advantage of live streaming. Live streaming events allow members of the public who are unable to attend the meetings in person to either watch as the meeting is live streamed or at their convenience. Several entities, including churches, have taken advantage of live streaming as we grapple with the effects of social distancing during this pandemic.
But we have a few concerns with Booker’s and Burk’s proposal.
The first is the time itself. We agree that live streaming meetings potentially reaches more people. However, we think more people will be able to watch the meetings live if they are held at 6 p.m. We don’t think too many employers will look favorably on their employees taking two to three hours out of their work day to watch the City Council meeting. It would be difficult for persons who work during the day to participate in a live-streamed meeting and comment on an item of concern to them.
The second concern we have is audience participation. The agenda item commentary says the public would still be able to participate in the meetings. It does not spell out how that would work, but we assume members could send in questions via social media. That might work for those viewers who have social media; many do not.
Live streaming was used during city budget workshops this spring, and we didn’t notice too many people asking questions via social media. Audience participation works best when members of the public can make their presentations or their concerns known in person. Doing so allows for a dialogue to take place between the council and the public.
Citizens with concerns or comments should have the opportunity to speak in person in front of the full council. Many times we have seen a member of the public’s concerns resolved because they were able to address the full council in person.
The third reason we are concerned about the time change concerns the council members themselves. At least four of the present council members are small business owners, two are retired and two have normal-hour jobs. We fear that changing the meeting times would limit those who would file for office to a smaller pool of candidates. Only those who could afford to spend several hours in the middle of the day in a meeting might seek office. That would be a detriment to representation.
The agenda commentary cites cost as another factor in moving the meeting time. Certain staff members are required to attend the meetings to lend their expertise on agenda items. Most of those staff members are on salary, so we question the savings that would be realized.
In addition, while streaming has its benefits, one has to look no further than last week’s session on the pandemic to note that there are still issues. Many viewers commented that audio dropped out during critical discussion periods, and the regular “buffering” that seemed to take place periodically sometimes — but not always — seemed to drop segments of the discussion.
So we propose a compromise. The council meets on the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month. We suggest they hold one meeting in the afternoon and one meeting in the evening.
We hope that members of the council will have a debate Tuesday taking all potential disadvantages on this issue into account before casting their vote.