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Ethics commission discusses transparency in unbroadcast meeting

Monday, August 24, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

As Covid-19 has pushed city meetings online, questions about public participation have taken center stage, with community members and commissioners alike struggling with cumbersome web platforms and long waiting times on phone lines.

The topic came before the Ethics Review Commission on Aug. 12 for discussion. But it was only on Aug. 21 that the conversation was accessible to the public when it was posted online by the city clerk’s office. When asked what hindered an earlier posting time – ATXN broadcasts are generally available the same week – the clerk’s office blamed the delays on staff working from home.

During the commission meeting, commissioners debated whether providing oversight on how city meetings are conducted falls under their purview. While commissioners agreed the rules governing the commissions’ proceedings do not explicitly pertain to enforcing transparency, Betsy Greenberg noted, “It is a hurdle for public participation and our participation. And our participation is definitely within our purview.”

Luis Soberon, the chair of the Ethics Review Commission, told the Austin Monitor that governmental ethics, access and transparency are inexorably intertwined. “There is an undeniable link between ethics in government and access and transparency in government,” he said. Despite his view that removing access to public meetings can cast an ethical shadow on government proceedings, he said, “One of the things that I made sure to remind commissioners of is that our jurisdiction as a commission doesn’t currently extend to policing how other city meetings are conducted.”

Soberon said the ethics commission will have an opportunity to better understand virtual meeting platforms and protocols at a September gathering. Commissioners will look into why the city requires pre-registration a day in advance and whether the timeline can be reduced; how meeting rules and instructions are publicized and in which languages; and how to allow speakers to reestablish connection if a call is dropped.

Ana Aguirre, who lives in District 2, told the commission that many of her neighbors are “in survival mode, so civil engagement is much harder for them.” She said many residents are prioritizing basic needs rather than paying for internet access, which makes virtual meetings a barrier. Furthermore, she said the city’s policy of requiring speakers to sign up at noon the day before a meeting can be exclusionary and result in citizens being unable to sign up to speak on items that are posted in late backup.

Megan Meisenbach also expressed her disappointment in the requirement to sign up in advance to speak. She added that the Cisco Webex platform presents another hurdle for those who may not have internet access or are not as technologically savvy. “As a technology hub, Austin can do a lot better than Webex to manage security issues,” she said.

The use of Webex proved to be a particularly thorny subject for commissioners as well. Commissioner J. Michael Ohueri said as he sat on the meeting, he was unable to see his fellow commissioners clearly. “Cisco Webex meetings just really do not seem to be the best option,” he said. “It’s a two-step process and for me, functionally, it just doesn’t work well.” Other commissioners concurred.

Assistant City Attorney Lynn Carter told the commission that Webex is the chosen platform due to cybersecurity as well as staffing needs and caller management protocols.

While the commission took no concrete action, Soberon told the Monitor that the commission will continue to pursue transparency and access in public meetings. He said in the annual report, the commission identified an exploration of this subject as a priority for the upcoming year.

“We want to be engaged in the issue of access,” Commissioner Raafia Lari said. “We do believe that (access) is an ethics issue.”

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