A timely and exceedingly insightful opinion piece in Governing urges the public “to make the most of opportunities for civic participation” by attending public meetings and documenting what transpires.
New laws governing public meetings in Kentucky took effect on July 14 and are the subject of a Kentucky Open Government Coalition post that will appear shortly, as well as a July 27 webinar — hosted by the Coalition — where we will examine the changes in our open government laws.
For Governing, Darryl Holliday — executive director of national impact at City Bureau, where he manages the Documenters Network— writes:
“Unpopular Supreme Court rulings, rollbacks of federal voter protections and Senate gridlock can make it feel as if representative democracy is slipping out of reach. Yet on the local level, a sturdy instrument of democracy is commonly overlooked.
Public meetings can be powerful ways to influence local government decisions that directly affect our lives.”
“The problem is, with so few reporters now covering city hall, those decisions are often made with no one watching. At our nonprofit civic media organization, City Bureau, we’ve found that local residents can cover public meetings effectively, and it can transform both government behavior and the citizens themselves. It’s a model that’s ready to scale across the country.
“The United States has more than 500,000 local elected officials who control over $2 trillion in local government spending. While Americans vote in local elections at less than half the rate of presidential ones, local officials likely have more direct impact on their day-to-day lives than the wrangling in Congress and most Supreme Court rulings. And a local alderman is a lot easier to hold accountable than the president.
“It’s time we reconnect with local democracy, and there are public spaces already set up for this in nearly every municipality in America. Every day, elected and appointed officials host more than 1,500 public meetings, by conservative estimate. They cover everything from police accountability and local school curriculums to mosquito abatement plans and utility rates. As one researcher put it, these meetings are ‘the most commonly used, frequently criticized, yet least understood methods of public participation.’
“And yet most of these meetings take place with nobody from the media present. So for the last four years, City Bureau has been training and paying everyday citizens to attend and take notes at public meetings. These Documenters have attended more than 2,800 public meetings in our hometown of Chicago and with our partner sites in Detroit, Cleveland and Minneapolis.
“We’ve learned that open meetings are critical and often-overlooked spaces for civic participation. Many meetings happen with no one present except for public officials themselves. Others are attended only by those with an explicit interest in swaying them for private benefit: A county land bank meeting is attended only by developers; election board hearings are empty except for political actors.
“A single person attending a public meeting can change how officials behave.
“Federal and state law guarantees the protection of open meetings under most circumstances, and state-level open meetings laws determine the methods by which local public meetings are conducted. Our Documenters have found that local officials sometimes fall short of the law, often due to lack of training and the fact that no one has ever asked. And even where meetings are technically open to the public, the vast majority are held during working hours and, more recently, online. If you work during the day (like 80 percent of Americans) or don’t have home Internet (like 1 in 4 U.S. households), you’re mostly out of luck.”
Holliday advocates for the creation of a Documenters program “in every community in America,” concluding:
“Americans have more than one way to participate in democracy, and a local government meeting can be an even more powerful venue than a voting booth.”