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Council to consider videoconferencing for public testimony

Thursday, August 4, 2016 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

In a quest to simplify the lives of constituents while easing some downtown traffic, City Council Member Don Zimmerman has proposed testing out videoconferencing for citizens communication during Council meetings.

“I have a lot of constituents complaining about parking problems and just the delays trying to get down to testify,” said Zimmerman, who represents District 6, one of the farthest districts from City Hall. “They could easily be looking at two-and-a-half hours out of their day to get three minutes to say something in front of Council.”

The suggested pilot program would allow Zimmerman’s constituents to testify from his field office during Council’s noon public comment slot – a staple of every Thursday meeting. Zimmerman has gathered support from others on the dais, including the mayor and Council Member Ora Houston. But the pilot would focus on Zimmerman’s district, since he is the only Council member with a local office.

Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, said the state law that makes this possible is mostly focused on allowing Council members to videoconference into meetings. A spokesperson from League City, Texas, confirmed that Council members for that small city within the Houston metro area have used videoconferencing to participate in meetings while out of town. However, neither Sandlin nor the spokesperson could name another Texas city that has used it – either for Council members or members of the public.

Sandlin suggested that potential technological issues make the whole thing too cumbersome.

“You’ve got to be able to be seen and see and take comments from the public – all that over video in presumably different peoples’ houses or wherever they’re set up,” he said. “It’s just too much hassle.”

But Council Member Ellen Troxclair’s office said that she has considered attending Council meetings by video while on a forthcoming maternity leave.

When it comes to citizens availing themselves of the technology, though, Sandlin said he thought that for some, a physical presence makes a difference.

“There’s something kind of, I guess, impersonal about video,” he said.

Local activist David King agreed.

“The body language, the intonations of your voice, it seems to come through better if you’re there physically in person,” said King. Although King said he will support the measure, noting how it opens access to residents who may not have the means, be it time or money, to come to City Hall, he doesn’t see himself using it.

“I think you get the full impact when you’re there in person.”

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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