Fresno City Council members clashed on Thursday while considering whether to allow the public to comment online on government meeting agenda items.
The city of Fresno in mid August entered into an agreement with St. Paul, Minn. based Granicus, which provides software services, to manage meeting processes in the city clerk’s office.
The item before the City Council on Thursday on the consent calender was an amendment to the agreement, which included allowing online comments.
City Clerk Yvonne Spence said the software would allow residents to comment on certain agenda items during a window of time before a council meeting.
Once the window closed, the software would generate a report of the comments for council members to consider before their vote at the meeting. Other cities such as San Jose, Oakland, San Diego, Long Beach and more have used online commenting far back as 2011, she said.
Residents still could comment in person at meetings or call, email or write letters to council members like they’ve always done.
“ECommenting” would “add community members’ voices to the democratic process” and “Makes participation in public meetings more convenient,” she said.
It would also increase accessibility for people who may be disabled and would decrease environmental impacts from traffic and parking when people attend public meetings.
Council President Esmeralda Soria, who represents District 1, said online commenting will make it easier for working residents to participate in government since meetings are held during business hours. “I believe in transparency and making sure we make government accessible in any way,” she said.
City officials could choose which agenda items to allow online on, Spence said. For example, City Attorney Douglas Sloan said for land use issues, city lawyers and development staff may be required to respond to each comment under the California Environmental Quality Act, which would create hours of extra work. That might be one area where city officials choose to disable commenting, he said.
District 2 Councilman Steve Brandau, who represents northwest Fresno, said he’d like to see some guidelines for the commenters to avoid overly long comments, profanity or name calling.
But District 7 Councilman Clint Olivier, who represents central Fresno, compared the online commenting feature to social media and worried the city would be censoring free speech.
“This is basically Facebook or Twitter,” he said. “…It sounds to me like we’re going to have a city social media page on every agenda item. I can’t support this if you’re going to exclude some items. There’s already people in the population who think the fix is in on whatever government does. …Obviously, they’ll think the fix is in on this item if they can’t even comment on it.”
People with disabilities find ways to speak during public comment if issues are important to them, Olivier said, adding he’s seen people with support animals and in wheelchairs at city hall many times.
Councilman Oliver Baines, who represents District 3 in southwest Fresno, was frustrated there was so much debate on the subject.
“I don’t know how we complicated something that’s really simple,” he said. “No one’s being censored. This, in no way, removes a person’s ability to comment on our items. It’s simply an additional way to comment. … I know we all get freaked out every time we get something in the 21st Century around here, but that’s all it is.”
The council decided to postpone voting on the item until the next council meeting on Sept. 20.