For anyone that missed the live feed or replay of last nights City Council meeting there were some intense moments (ICRC Link to the replay) For context – it started at time 43:53 during the ‘Old Business’ of the meeting I brought up a follow-up item from a letter a resident had sent in to the City (addressing both City Council and City Administration) that included some detailed questions about a fee change City Administration was planning for next year.
The resident had sent the letter for the prior meeting, and was received the morning of that Council meeting and distributed to Council and Administration that same afternoon. In that meeting, to the surprise of many, the Clerk of Council shared that a letter was received and was passed on to City Administration to address – without providing any details (or letting the public know that the letter was also shared with the rest of the elected officials). Any elected official was free to speak with the resident and have that open communication.
It was during follow-up on the fees letter than I learned that to them – the public airing of their thoughts was just as important as receiving the responses – and that they would like to give Council an opportunity to reply as it relates to budgeting which is why I presented the concerns they had with the fees and several members of Council shared their views. I agreed that this was relevant to Council as we are in “budget season” now and while City Council does not set the fees we do have some oversight and approver role (Council would be required to take action if we were to restrict the use of these funds and similar.)
Aside from the discussion, it just seemed the respectful thing to do for that resident that their questions get the care requested.
What does Community Center fee changes have to do with Council Communication Policy?
This recent letter brought to the forefront a long standing issue. Historically most signed ‘letters’ have been read (with some exceptions – anonymous letters and overly uncivil communications were not read, and in some cases not even distributed to the rest of Council).
This is an important point for me as I evaluate the proposed change to Council rules:
The City Council’s rules / procedures does not fully address how these types of communications should be handled and as the Law Director shared at the October 19th meeting there is currently no requirement to read these letters at meetings now.
This lack of rules has absolutely caused issues in the past – residents were sometimes confused or offended why their letter was not read while another was. Mayor Webster directly acknowledged this in the meeting as well as being an issue and supported an update.
At 48:00 as part of ‘New Business’ the President of Council brought up a desire to clarify the rules of Council on how letters would be handled. I was not aware that this would be brought forward – and I suspect most of Council was in the same boat (which is not an issue – just sharing the environment for better understanding.)
During discussion for that rule change Council did appear in favor of addressing the topic of written communications – though we did not have a proposed ordinance to work from that night. Once that was decided (a point Council Member Jacobs highlighted more than once) that we needed to get into the weeds before making a change discussion on the details of the rule change was limited. This is typical in my experience – detailed discussion on ordinances happens once we had something to act on.
Based on that discussion we had I expect that at the November 16th meeting:
- Council will be presenting a non-emergency ordinance to update City Council rules on how written communications sent to the Clerk of Council that will be handled.
- The ordinance will prescribe how written communications (that meet a defined standard ie. signed with valid return information and civil) will be distributed to either all members of City Council, City Administration, or both and retained according to our records retention policy.
- The rules will outline that the receiving and responsible party will respond as needed and all parties on the distribution will receive the reply.
I do not understand or accept the claims I have heard since the meeting that this would be censorship. There is no first amendment or other right to require a government body to express your views that you have sent in through a letter, email, or text. In fact, I see this as a change that would prevent censorship between residents and elected officials by requiring communications to be distributed.
I would also highlight that every elected official has an email address and phone number published.
- The proposed changes would not prevent an elected official to bring a letter they received forward during the meeting
- The proposed changes do not prevent residents from contacting nor would prohibit any sort of communications between residents and elected officials
- The proposed changes I have heard does not restrict residents’ presentations at the meeting
- Next year the current elected official who serves as Clerk of Council changes to an appointed role – which means if we did not make some rules change the decision on how to act on letters would fall to the appointed role inside City Administration with no direct accountability to the public
I firmly believe and fully support that our local government has a responsibility to have an open and 2-way communication with every city resident that is interested – that does not mean that the government is required to act as a megaphone for any person that has access to email – and I certainly do not want to leave ‘content moderation’ to a non-elected moderator.
I am sensitive to the concern raised that having a letter read could disenfranchise some residents who are unable or unwilling to come to the meetings in-person.
In those cases it is important that the new rules do not limit the ability for a resident to reach out to any of their elected City Council members and work with them to have their views heard.
I see this proposed change as a strong move to reduce the risk of censorship, sets clear expectations for communications, and makes it easier and more reliable to have resident communications acted on.
I’m open to other views; this isn’t an easy one. So if there is something I am not considering – or weighing correctly – let me know! Just like the recent waves of discussion on the community center move it was through talking with so many of you all that helped form and change my views on the proposal.
One final item – at the meeting last night at timestamp 1:14:19 as the resident was unable to attend and speak their mind and asked another resident to share a thought for them. Reading someone else letter via proxy is something I frankly need give more thought to – and I believe the City is also investigating. I believe this is a distinct issue that needs additional follow-up.
What do you think? Let your elected officials know!
email and phone numbers of all your City Council members are online – https://www.springdale.org/member-profiles.aspx
City Administration as well –