I believe it wouldn’t be controversial to say that the July 21 Sandy Springs City Council meeting was fraught with tension. (“Sandy Springs City Council restricts length, sets deadline for public comments,” July 23.) Many were especially interested in the decision by City Council over masks, and such tension spilled over both into City Council’s discussions and the comments section on the Facebook livestream. However, regardless of the aforementioned decision or how one feels about it, one decision in particular should worry all residents: the decision to suspend the reading of general public comments in online meetings. Unfortunately, this starts to show signs of a trend towards lessening the ability for the public to be heard that needs to be reversed as soon as possible.
Let’s be frank about what happened that night: such comments will no longer be read because City Council did not want to listen to residents’ concerns for one single night. As someone who has given multiple public comments before, this decision comes off as insulting, to say nothing for the 53 residents who hoped to have their voices heard in that meeting. There is no promise that through the new policy, in which public comments are solely emailed to City Council, our voices will be heard, as it is not guaranteed that such comments will actually be read. To this point, only Councilmember Jody Reichel had confirmed that she had been reading the public comments during the session, and the promise of them appearing on the meeting minutes is itself no guarantee when those minutes do not always get posted (such as those for the Dec. 17 session). And when many comments relate to issues being voted on during said session, particularly as important as those during that session, it is outright necessary that those voices are heard.
But what is especially worrying is the logic (or lack thereof) behind this decision. Despite Councilmember Andy Bauman’s claims of dealing with “possibly three or four hours” worth of comments, at worst it would have taken a little over two-and-a-half hours if everyone took their full three minutes allotted, already showing the shakiness of the defense. However, not everyone uses the full time allotted per comment, and this was the case for most of the 53 public comments in that meeting. To see how much time was actually “saved”, I took the time to read aloud all public comments to see if Councilmember Bauman’s fears were valid. The result? Forty-two minutes and 45 seconds, not even a fourth of the above prediction. And keep in mind, this was one of the busier public comment periods faced by City Council, which is not a common occurrence. In many other meetings, there are only a few public comments, and it is not uncommon to receive no public comments whatsoever. In this context, it becomes indefensible to restrict the voices of residents in this manner over misguided fears towards a rare occurrence, especially when there is no telling how many virtual meetings are to come, both in the immediate future and well past the threat of COVID-19.
The ramifications of that night’s decision are multiplied further by their misguided decision to further isolate themselves by not participating in Civic Dinners. It is worth acknowledging that their reasoning centers around keeping these discussions a resident-focused process. To a limited degree, there is a valid argument to be made here, as extensive participation in the process may inadvertently shift the focus away from what we can do as residents.
However, complete isolation is not the answer either, as they have a duty to participate to both set an example as prominent residents of Sandy Springs and (as mentioned above) to listen to residents’ concerns and opinions. Additionally, it is important to hear their perspective as members of City Council so that we can have a larger perspective on inclusivity and diversity and be better able to address it properly.
This was especially shown from a staff perspective in the Civic Dinner expertly hosted by City Clerk Raquel Gonzalez, where she provided valuable perspectives as someone who is both a prominent staff member and is in the process of raising a family. (“Gentrification, segregation discussed by Sandy Springs residents in racial talks,” July 31.) Staying out of most such events is a good decision to keep the process citizen-focused, but at a certain level they need to at least have some participation (even a limited amount) in order to fulfill their duties as residents and council members.
Sadly, these are not the only such incidents of attempted workarounds towards public opinion (whether they are intentional or not), as there have been multiple complaints about City Council not listening to the opinions and concerns of those they represent. Occasionally, there are times where resident outcry has gotten through, such as public concern over expansions of the city manager’s power with variances last November. However, there have also been multiple examples of the contrary, most notably last year’s decision to abandon the public-private partnership model that the city was founded on. In it, residents were not given adequate time to prepare statements, and the decision was rushed through before many residents realized what had happened. Regardless of whether such a decision was deemed needed or not, the willingness to make such wide-ranging decisions without hearing the worries and interests of residents is worrying.
As such, I propose the following:
Reading public comments aloud in online meetings again. This solution should frankly be nonnegotiable, as the new policy restricts the ability for residents to have their voices heard by those who are tasked with representing us with a justification that is inadequate at best, if not outright incorrect. Additionally, the new policy is attempting to address a “problem” that is not only not a problem in the first place, but also a key aspect of public engagement with elected officials. It is important to keep in mind that City Council members have their own jobs and lives outside of these meetings, and they absolutely value the time they can spend with those around them. At the same time, the open engagement with residents is a central facet of being an elected official, which each member willingly became, and even if such a task may be tedious during certain meetings, the solution is indeed, as Councilmember Bauman stated, to “start digging into the comments” during such meetings.
Mandate continuing to livestream and record City Council meetings. While many residents, myself included, are glad that public meetings are now being livestreamed, it is necessary to remember that this policy was put in place purely because of the pandemic. In fact, just about all surrounding municipalities had been utilizing this policy well before COVID-19, making Sandy Springs a bizarre outlier. Even if the livestreaming as it is currently isn’t perfect (and it is worth acknowledging that there are efforts to address this at the time of writing), it is still much better than its complete absence before the pandemic.
Have City Council take a more visibly active role in engaging with the community. While Sandy Springs staff have done a good job attempting to be more active with the community, the same cannot quite be said for much of City Council itself. This is not to say that they have been completely absent, as Mayor Rusty Paul has been at the forefront of the city with its messaging, while Councilman Bauman has at least been active on social media engaging with constituents. However, for the most part the other members have not been visibly active with engagement, which has frustrated multiple residents whom I have talked to. This is especially important when the city faces important issues such as addressing COVID-19 or tackling the topics of inclusivity and diversity.
We shouldn’t expect everyone to be perfect or to agree with everything we say or do, and that especially applies to City Council. However, as listening to the concerns of constituents is a vital part of elected officials’ duties, we should at least set a basis for expectations in that our voices can truly be heard, even if we don’t agree with their final decisions. To that end, I implore City Council to not only have public comments read aloud again on virtual meetings, but also ensure that there is visibly greater engagement in both public and private settings.
Theodore Davis III
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