Saturday, April 04, 2015

Council Planning Image vs. Substance: Street Study

For the second year in a row city officials chose not to record Council's strategic planning session.  Last year Public Information Officer gave the following reason for not recording:

Public Information is equipped to record board, commission and Council meetings in the Council chambers. We are not equipped to film such a meeting in a remote location.

For years the city recorded and shared the event with the public.  The 2014 event was a black hole of information from city officials.  I had to request documents council considered in their June retreat at Fort Chadbourne as they were not made available on the city's website.

Why might the city leaders not want a track record of planning sessions?  For one, recordings provide historical information with which to assess city leadership.  The February 2013 event included a presentation on a comprehensive street study, which City Engineer Clinton Bailey proposed be done in order to put our streets on a planned maintenance schedule.  Shortly thereafter Bailey took the top Public Works job in Fredericksburg and engineers evaporated.

Purchasing dates for this project are below:

Staff presented the city's borrowing needs, which could include city streets, in December 2014.  Finance Director Tina Bunnell told council:

"We haven't even negotiated a contract for the street survey yet."  

Operations Director Shane Kelton gave council an expected timeline for survey completion.

April-May 2015 -- Preliminary data showing street scores
July-August 2015 -- Complete street survey report
What looked like a six month project turned into two and a half years.  Recall this is the crew that turned around trash and landfill bids in ten days.  Yes, one was a RFP and the other a RFQ, but both are complex situations that required further negotiation with the vendor.  To date no street survey contract has been presented to council for approval.  It is not on the agenda for Council's April 7th meeting

Two years of delay getting this information matters, as streets continued to deteriorate.  For those who missed City Engineer Clinton Bailey's tutorial on street maintenance.

How many streets entered the "waited too long" category and will cost five times more to fix than if caught earlier?  It's clear to me city leaders don't understand the importance of acting on streets at that critical point, before they deteriorate further driving up repair costs by 200%.  How many millions did the two year delay cost citizens?

There is already one cost increase from RFQ to Council's approval of vendor FUGRO Roadware.  The budget rose from $175,000 to $185,000, a $10,000 increase.

Our engineering drought continues with few signs of a break.  I wonder if that was discussed in the recent planning event.  The public would not know as we cannot view the session.

People concerned about image produce slick 4:21 minute videos to assuage the public that they are being informed.

Last year the city had goals for water, development and employee pay.  The city's short video presented these as new goal areas.  They clearly are not.

Repackaging old information as new hardly qualifies as substantive.  If City Council meets it's by definition a public meeting.  The city set the standard by recording meetings and playing them on Channel 17.  Interested citizens should be able to view leaders discussing the future of our city.  As no one could come in person a transparent city would've enabled citizens to view the meeting at their leisure.  Image is not substance.

Update 4-11-15:  City Manager Daniel Valenzuela supported the exploration of a new city logo at City Council's meeting this week.  He said "We are moving forward with a new vision, as far as a statement for the City of San Angelo and I think this ties in with that really well.  We'll discuss that in a little in executive session.  I think the timing is just right."

Update 8-9-15:  City leaders chose not to record the July 21 meeting between City Council and the City of San Angelo Development Corporation.

Update 9-20-15:  The street survey study results will be shared with Council on October 20th, well past the July-August promise.  As for the engineering drought that expressed in the last council meeting with an indefinite quantity, indefinite delivery RFQ selection of ten engineering vendors in an amount not to exceed $1 million.


Jim Turner said...

It's interesting and disappointing that the posted agenda includes the statement "City Council meetings are broadcast on Channel 17-Government Access at 10:30 A.M. and 7:00 P.M. every
day for two weeks beginning on the Thursday after each meeting." This is very different than what happened. It's even more disappointing when you consider the number of public service spots that have been shot all over town. They have been taking videos of the CIP presentations, events in the parks and at the BOSQUE, and managed to take videos of special sessions that were not in the council chambers several times in the recent past. It doesn't take much equipment to video a planning session just to create a clear record of what happened. Especially when the posted agenda says all council meetings are video recorded

Jim Turner said...

Continuing on, it's easy to forget that videos and other recordings of council meetings serve more than one purpose. Yes, the final product should have good production values, great audio, the video should focus on the speaker or the slides or what ever is the focus of the conversation. At the same time, and this is the part that is often forgotten, the recording (audio and video, etc.) becomes part of the official record of that meeting. It is there to maintain a complete and accurate record of what was discussed during a particular meeting.

The open meetings act goes so far as to state that all recordings (video and audio) made by the government are part of the official record and in many cases are recognized as the true minutes of a meeting even if written minutes are compiled. Over the years there have been many meetings of the council and other city boards and commissions where less than stellar recordings were made and provided to the public. Every one of them was important because viewers could see for themselves that the written minutes did reflect what happened there and a sense of the mood and intensity of the discussion was available to the public. This is especially important on planning and budgeting sessions, especially when the focus is very long range planning.

When planning sessions aren't recorded 2 years in a row after being consistently recorded for about a decade, it hurts the level of trust. When a planning session isn't recorded even though the agenda clearly states that "Council meetings are broadcast..." and by implication because of the rebroadcast times but no recording is attempted, it makes you wonder. A case could be made, based on some AG opinions I have read, that failure to record a meeting after consistently doing it for many years might be a violation of the open meetings act, especially when agenda pretty much stated the meeting would be recorded.

I realize that recording a remote event, meeting, etc. does present challenges and that often the quality will suffer. At the same time that doesn't lessen the importance of creating a recording of the event to increase the level of information and knowledge available to the public and to protect that fragile level of trust between our government and the citizens it is supposed to serve.