City Council Preview for Feb 23 and Some Thoughts on Citizen Engagement and Open Government

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The Denton City Council is set to meet today at 1pm. What was originally scheduled as just a Work Session has now turned into part-Special Called Session at the request of a council member in order to reconsider a vote made last week. You can see the full agenda with backup here.  Here’s what we will be discussing…

RECONSIDERATION OF VOTE FOR JOE RIVAS HOUSE
I’ve already addressed this issue late last week with this post. We will be hearing, discussing, and voting on that issue again at the request of a council member who wants to change their vote.

CONSIDERATION OF BAN ON MOBILE PHONE USE IN CARS
You might recall the council taking up this issue a couple years ago. What resulted was our current ban on texting while driving. One council member has requested that we visit this issue again and today will be the start of that conversation.

STRATEGIC PLAN, OPEN DATA, and BLOOMBERG’s “WHAT WORKS CITIES” PROJECT
As you may recall, Denton was selected as only a handful of cities nationwide to participate in the Bloomberg Philanthropies “What Works Cities” initiative to pilot ideas of how cities get smarter using data, analytics, and technology. We’ll hear an update on this project.

CITY COUNCIL RULES OF PROCEDURES
Finally, because some council members have asked for a discussion on a few items relating to the City Council Rules of Procedures, the city staff has forwarded a series of recommendations for us to consider. Some of the questions that have been asked are:

- should a city council member be able to attend a closed session of a city board or commission

- because we recently changed the rules to allow for an “open mic” section of the council meeting whereby any citizen can speak for up to 4 minutes without having previously signed up, how that process interacts with another existing opportunity for citizens to sign up ahead of time needs to be addressed (where in some cases, the person who signs up ahead of time has to wait until the end of the meeting while the person who didn’t sign up gets to go first)

- we recently changed the rules for citizen comments to be increased from 3 to 4 minutes. Now that we have had time to ascertain the effectiveness of that recent change, this may be part of the discussion

The nature of the posting and odd, un-requested changes and suggestions to the policy quite understandably caused concern with many people. To be sure, council has yet to discuss any of this. Today’s meeting will be the first time we have had the chance to dig into these issues – there won’t even be a vote on any of this tonight.

So while I agree with many of the concerns being raised on this topic, it does reveal what I see as a misdirection of focus on the city council meeting as a primary, or even effective means of citizen participation in local democracy. In fact, the most progressive cities who are really thinking through the very real problem of apathetic citizen involvement at the local level are all saying the same thing: it’s time to move beyond the old paradigm that citizen involvement happens in the context of official public meetings.

If you think about it, so much focus on the city council meeting as the primary vehicle for citizen engagement misses the crucial point that such meetings are typically significant barriers to citizen engagement and are, by their very nature, exclusionary. After all, this sort of “participation” requires citizens to actually show up to a meeting – this excludes people whose work schedules conflict, this excludes people who have to take care of kids or the elderly, and it is often an unrealistic ask for the vast majority of  our citizens who live quite busy, productive lives. And, just as important, this sort of involvement is just plain intimidating to the average citizen.

This point is absolutely crucial for policy makers to understand. I would be doing a great disservice as a representative of the city and my council district if I somehow equated the people and comments at a city council meeting with how our entire citizenry (or even a majority) feel about any particular issue. Of course, those showing up are an important part of that equation, but in a growing city of 120,000, confusing the 20 people who take the time to chime in at a meeting on a substantial city matter as “the voice of the citizens” is perilous for representative democracy.

It’s why cities and city council representatives should always look for new ways of getting citizen input and fostering genuine citizen involvement that are more inclusive, accessible, and scalable for a 21st century democracy.

This is why I was the first city council member to utilize social media, to use a website to post information about council meetings and my thoughts on important topics, all with the understanding that a city our size needed to utilize technology to scale our two-way communication efforts. This is why I initiated the creation of the Council Committee on Citizen Engagement to continually tweak the ways our city is hearing from, involving, and interacting with our citizenry. This is why I encouraged our city to pursue new technological avenues of citizen engagement, including a recent initiation of Denton’s Open Data policy and platform. This is why I’ve brought our city’s tech and startup community to the table to help us make democracy better. These initiatives have put Denton on the cutting edge of government transparency, even recently earning us the distinction of participating in the Bloomberg Philanthropies “What Works Cities” project.

And while technology is an essential tool to 21st century democracy, it can’t replace good old fashioned face to face democracy that takes place in every day life. It means rethinking our notion of “meetings” to include engagement opportunities in your home, in the neighborhood, in the coffee shop, or even at your local bar. I’ve held countless meetings on our city’s most controversial topics in just these places.

When someone asks me how they can be effective in getting their ideas in front of local policy makers, the very last thing I would recommend is to show up and speak at a council meeting. The most effective form of communicating with council members often takes place in unusual  settings: at the coffee shop, while swimming at the city pool, in line to pick up my kid from school, over a beer at a show, or while watching our kids play at the park.

This is the virtue of local democracy. It is supremely accessible.

So while I agree that we don’t need to exasperate things by too much tightening of council meeting rules, I also think we don’t need to focus on that particular vehicle of participation as the only or even the most effective or important for citizen engagement. If we are really serious about bettering citizen engagement in the 21st century, we need to start thinking beyond the walls of city hall.

As always, if you have any thoughts, questions, or concerns, contact me at kevin.roden@cityofdenton.com or 940-206-5239.

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