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City ethics commission wrestles with access during pandemic

Monday, November 2, 2020 by Elizabeth Pagano

In its previous, pre-pandemic incarnation, the city’s Ethics Review Commission met in a back room of City Hall that was often jammed full of commissioners, accusers, defenders, and occasionally, reporters. But the meetings were open to the public, and once inside that awkward, cramped room, it was easy enough to figure out what was happening.

Since March, however, it’s been much harder to follow the work of the body tasked with reviewing ethics violations by city employees. Unlike some other commissions, meetings have not been broadcast. And those curious about the commission’s activities were not given an option to listen in. So anyone interested in what was going on had one choice: wait a few days, and then check for an audio recording of the meeting.

It’s a situation commissioners are hoping to change.

Last month, in response to the new state of affairs brought on by the pandemic, commissioners approved a resolution addressing “difficulties including lack of awareness of registration deadlines, shortened speaker times, extended time on hold, incomplete speaker queues, call disconnections, and feedback during calls.” The resolution also acknowledged that “the city’s technology choices and procedural rules have unintentionally limited public participation and even denied members of the public the right to address the Austin City Council and/or City Boards and Commissions.”

The resolution listed a series of recommendations aimed at improving access and public participation in virtual meetings that included clearly posted rules for engagement, limited registration rules and more transparency in communication.

Commissioners also began a conversation about how, in an era where city meetings are taking place online, those meetings could be streamed to the public.

Assistant City Attorney Lynn Carter told the board that, initially, she was told commission meetings held on WebEx could be streamed via Facebook Live. “The problem with that is we don’t have a Facebook page, and the Open Meetings Act prohibits social media,” she said. “We’re not authorized to do social media as a commission, so we’re not able to use the Facebook Live option.”

Carter said the only way to livestream a commission video is to have someone from the communications office physically in Council chambers or the Boards and Commissions Room. “You still have to treat it like you were here in person. We have to find a day of the month that is available, and right now the (rooms) are being used by other commissions on this same night.”

“I know it doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense to me either. I figured, we’re on video, why can’t you stream it?” she said. “But that’s what the experts at the city tell me.”

Carter explained that, because the board is sovereign and makes determinations on ethics and campaign finance violations, she had gotten permission to allow members of the public to call in to listen live to the hearings scheduled for November and December meetings.

Throughout the discussion, commissioners spoke in support of broadcasting meetings.

“In my opinion, if our meetings were publicly available before, they should continue to be that way. I don’t see a reason why we wouldn’t do that,” said Commissioner Robin Lerner, speaking to the philosophical aspect of broadcasting meetings, as opposed to the logistical one.

Austinite Zenobia Joseph called in to express her support of livestreaming meetings in an effort to improve citizen communication. She described the adventure of trying to navigate the rules of public comment across public meetings now held virtually.

She told the commission that the current rules, which ask participants to call in 15 minutes before the scheduled start time, seemed promising. In the past, though, she had been “too early” to register for a Council meeting, and later missed the window to sign up for that same meeting because she was too late. She also said she did not understand why public comment was relegated to the beginnings of some city meetings, when the technology to talk to staff throughout exists.

“These changes occur without discussion. It’s almost like a Cracker Jack box. You don’t really know what you’re going to get until you pull out the prize,” said Joseph.

Currently, the city is operating in line with Gov. Greg Abbott’s Texas Open Meetings Act suspension, which was issued March 16. Under the emergency declaration, normal meeting regulations have been struck, and will remain that way until the disaster declaration is over or the Texas Open Meetings Act has been reinstated. A spokesperson from the city explained to the Austin Monitor that the only city code provision that has been waived is one that allows boards, commissions and City Council to meet remotely.

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