đź“° Public meetings weren't made for you

In this week's Sunday read, I'm thinking about the structure of public meetings. What brings us to them? What keeps us out of them?

January 17, 2021 | Letter No. 24

Public meetings weren’t made for you. You may care about the place you live, but if you want to follow public meetings, to comment on issues important to you, to watch as your city unfolds, you're going to have some trouble.

Back in 2018, Rachel Quednau of Strong Towns argued that due to the labyrinth of commissions, councils, and boards; their associated email news blasts; and their scheduling, even the Public motivated to attend will find it difficult to stay on top of public meetings:

I’m mystified as to why a person with a college degree, a strong interest and concern for local issues, and access to a computer with internet on a daily basis repeatedly fails to be informed about local meetings. And if I can't manage it, I can't imagine that someone without these advantages would have an easier time. 

For Quednau, whose focus is on meeting scheduling, it is simply a matter of adequately funding the structures of outreach: namely your city communications office.

The same year, I started reporting on city government in Iowa City. I thought the problem boiled down to newspapers dropping the ball. If a city reporter did their job, I thought we’d have the informed consent we value.

In a weekly column we called “The Punch-up,” I tried to write through the agenda with a little more venom, a little more spunk. We tried to translate the agenda items of note into language people would want to read. We build it, but no one came. My idea of writing a pamphlet for that week in the democracy just wasn't interesting to readers.

Now maybe it wasn’t advertised adequately, maybe it needed more time to develop an audience. If one thing was clear, it’s that it was a time-consuming effort that in the end wasn’t journalism: just a surface-level ride on the agenda. It made the agenda more readable. Great. But if the agenda (the document meant to provide a sense of order and understanding to these meetings) needs translating, something is wrong. Namely:

Public meetings aren’t made for you. We can parse the hostile architecture of these meetings into three parts: your ability to access them, the specialization of their content, and the ways they shape consent.

[Below: A picture of the tremendous crowd who showed up to see Greta Thunberg speak in on October 4, 2019 in Iowa City.]

Access: Meetings aren’t easy to attend

If our goal is to get the public to attend these meetings, we need to rethink how we hold them.

In this pandemic era, some may feel cities are doing more to open their meetings than ever before. You can watch meetings online at your own pace. Video conferencing apps openend board discussions to people far away. City media projects like “Community Connection” aim to provide information in approachable formats. But none of this gets to the root issue.

City Council meetings run from 5 p.m. to midnight. Seven hours. If you have just one kid, that’s a pretty tough time to make. If you have a second or third shift job, will you have time to show up? Even if the meeting ends at 9 p.m., five hours is a significant investment of time. Add on top of that: attending listening posts, planning and zoning meetings, and art commission gatherings. Suddenly, you’ve got a pretty time-intensive hobby.

I am the ultimate privileged spectator here. I get paid to be at these meetings. (Thanks, Mr. Gannett.) I sit through them all because I’m not always sure which one will pique my interest. I can think of just a few casual consumers of city government who attend meetings this way.

Most people I’ve met who come to meetings are there for specific topics. They’re interested in zoning, TIF packages, or the plan to restructure the police. Once their topic of interest has been covered, they leave. I think this is great. They have certain values, certain interests, and they come to participate. But because we fold all topics into the same mega-meeting, this potentially-involved citizen has to determine with each hour spent, whether this was a good use of time?

If you come to hear about a road project and have to sit through the too long proclamation section, it’s a fair question whether this meeting was set up to value your time as a participating member of the public.

Specialized government systems necessitate public explanation

Iowa City has a damn smart staff. I spend a lot of time calling around asking staff to help me understand an issue so I can explain it to readers. By virtue of my job, I am able to make these phone calls. But not everyone can.

Recently, I had an exchange with Johnson County Supervisor Rod Sullivan about just this point.

“We now put so much info in our packet (500 pages sometimes) that the average citizen could never find what they actually need. But what is the alternative? I struggle with that,” Sullivan tweeted.

These are packets chock-full of correspondence to the board, changes to the Unified Development Ordinance, presentations from county staff, and resolutions that decide what land will be able to do. Hugely interesting stuff in a volume that is simply unreadable unless you have the time. Being a supervisor is a full-time job.

Obviously, these pages must be made available for examination, but we puzzled over whether that was enough. Is there a way in which the bulk of transparency has led us to a kind of obfuscation?

There is no simple system that, for example, absorbs HUDs regulatory requirements. This requires specialization. Skill. Complicated systems must be documented and transparent. This creates more paper. In short, there are two problems here: government systems are complex, requiring more specialized staffing. And documents being available does not mean the public is informed by those documents.

Explaining the government to the people has not really been the role of government communications offices. Given our own country’s history with propaganda, I shudder to think that this is the solution. Meanwhile, newspapers do not have the staffing to focus on explanatory work for these existing institutions.

If we want the public to meaningfully get involved in conversations, we need to rethink how we are growing an informed citizenry.

Consent to be governed

I came away from my first city council meeting in 2018 thinking that deer castration was an extremely popular policy for Iowa City’s residents. This was because eight or so residents stood up during the meeting to tell the council that this was the ethical way to control the quickly growing deer population.

You’ll hear politicians reference the “the will of the people.” It’s invoked sometimes to mean some comments on a Facebook post, the handful who spoke at a meeting, or emails received from our social network. We reduce this will to a relatively simple, unrepresentative slice because our ability to capture that will remains problematic.

In a democracy, we like the idea that we do things because people want them done. Sometimes it’s direct action. More often, it’s through an elected representative. But given how few people are involved in public meetings, and how few even vote in city-school elections, doesn’t this point to a need to rethink how we organize the government’s consent apparatus?

The word “consent” is an important one, here. Consent is an act of trust, established between two enthusiastic parties for mutual participation. If our public meetings are not built in a way that foregrounds our participation and our understanding, how can we say our government is looking for our enthusiastic consent?

It’s important to say that these structures weren’t built overnight. They were built by generations of lawyers who created public meetings that conform with our system laws. What I am saying is that this process of public meetings does not prioritize your participation. It is not created for you to understand it. Much like the Iowa Caucuses, it prioritizes the participation of the privileged few who have the time or are paid to wade through it.

What can we do about it?

My critique here is as a professional user of this system. It is not as an expert in public meetings. I’m certain that for each of my points, there are compelling — likely cost-related — reasons for public meetings being the way they are.

Nonetheless, I care about this issue and think there are some things we could do to fix the thematic problems above:

Length - Meetings are too long. They may need to become more frequent, but stamina should not be a limiting reagent for participation in local government. Also, get rid of the proclamation section — or make it the very last possible section in the meeting.

Topic-oriented - I can imagine a world where city council meets a few times a week, each time taking on a different section of work. Maybe it’s permitting in one, planning and zoning in another. Your more consistent topic might have a regular meeting time. Meetings for your less frequent topics might be on an ad hoc basis. Not only would this shorten meetings, it would prioritize spectators of these topics.

Describe the process - Whatever process we use, there should be annual trainings for these meetings. Staff should go over how to read the packet and, similar to the current city memos, focus on how items are coming to council and what their next steps are.

Asynchronous involvement - Ultimately, we will not have a public meeting time that will work for everyone. Still, we must find meaningful ways to have ongoing public comment on issues. While email comes close, I think there is an aspect of training here too, where the city works with the public to define meaningful avenues of comment.

Public posting written not for lawyers but for laity - This one is pretty self-explanatory. We should be writing public meeting agendas and agenda packets so that they are understandable to the public.

Fund and read local news - Newspapers are clearly not a panacea for these issues. We target issues we decide are important. This is far from the comprehensive public information approach that’s needed. However, I think that even if you don’t read the paper, there is a great argument to be made for paying for a subscription just because you know the paper has decided to focus on these institutions.

Your friendly neighborhood reporter,

Zachary Oren Smith


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Zachary Oren Smith writes about government, growth and development for the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Reach him at zsmith@press-citizen.com, at 319 -339-7354 or on Twitter via @Zacharyos.