For several years, Fred Mays hasn't liked the content of the city of Orlando's website. It lacked information he needed to do his job as a freelance writer, such as a list of services and facilities available at the city's 91 parks.
So Mays called Orlando's public-information office and suggested changes. He called so many times that Jim DeSimone, who formerly directed the city's Office of Communication, grew to know and respect him.
When Mayor Glenda Hood's administration recently decided to upgrade the site, guess who got picked to manage the job.
Mays began working part-time in January as the city's web content coordinator. He promises a fresh look and new features, most of which should be up on the site by fall.
"It will be a complete restructuring," Mays says.
The question is, why stop there? A recurring theme of the recent mayoral election was that Hood, after eight years as mayor, was not as forthcoming as she could be. If four out of six members of the City Council say they can't get the information they want or need to decide public policy, imagine where that leaves the rest of us.
There are common-sense steps Orlando can take to make itself more user-friendly, more accessible and more accountable to constituents. With two new council members taking office next month, and Hood just maybe feeling slightly chastened (though we wouldn't bet big money on it), there's no better time than now to try.
Here's our short list of contenders:
Televise council meetings, so that even when the public can't be there in person, they can keep an eye on Hood's and the council's doings. Move the start time from 2 p.m. on Monday afternoons to some time in the evenings, so those who do want to show up aren't forced to call in sick or cut out of work in order to do so. And Commissioner Ernest Page is right: The all-important agenda-setting meeting that precedes every council session should be moved out of a side room and into the Council Chambers, where the public can more easily find it and where, more to the point, it can be video-recorded.
That agenda meeting is no small matter. And it's important for more than just the questions that are resolved there; it's why Page and two other council members backed Commissioner Bruce Gordy in his unsuccessful bid to unseat Hood. "That was not personal," Page says. "It was a matter of saying that government can be conducted better and in a more effective fashion than it has been."
The goal is obvious. More information means more interest. More interest means more participation. "People have a hard time finding out about local government," says Aubrey Jewett, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida, "and yet local government affects your life far more than state or federal government."
But that's only part of it. The other part is that people need to be reminded that democracy isn't always pretty. Nor should it be.
"The most important thing is that government be accountable," says Gordy, who, in losing to Hood, still racked up 33 percent of the vote in a three-way race. "Right now, I don't think we are accountable. I don't think the public knows what is going on."
To the city's credit, it long ago tried some of the preceding recommendations. Administrators have indeed broadcast council meetings and held them during evening hours.
"We tried all that in the early '80s," says Randall James, a former chief of staff who used to joke that he ran the Bureau of Public Apathy. "We ran a bunch of meetings at night and nobody showed up. There were less people at night than there were in the afternoon." After the cable company pulled the plug on televised council meetings in the mid-1980s, James says he didn't receive a single call of complaint.
Yet he's optimistic: "They're good ideas. The public's interest in this has changed. ... People who didn't care before are now rocking on the porch. We have more energetic people who might be ready to participate in council meetings."
Occasionally nostalgic for government, James finds himself channel surfing to Orange TV, the government-access cable channel run by Orange County. Has television made politicians more professional, less likely to grandstand or bark unfairly at their constituents -- or each other?
"No," James answers. "There's still a lot of bickering and gnashing of teeth by certain commissioners. The names and faces have changed, but their sentiments are the same."
Here are the ideas to make the Orlando Council more responsive and what political observers say about them:
The agenda meeting: For three-and-a-half years Ernest Page has complained, mostly to deaf ears, that the city's agenda-setting sessions violated the "spirit" of Florida's sunshine laws, which require public policy to be debated in the open. These meetings -- which bring city commissioners, department heads and other staff members together to go over that day's meeting agenda an hour before the council meeting takes place -- are where many of the answers are given and the controversies smoothed over. Only since last fall, at Page's insistence, have the meetings been recorded on audio.
The public, including the media, is welcome at the agenda meeting. But you have to know where to find it -- not in the Council Chambers, but in a much smaller conference room down the hall.
The meeting is nothing new. It's been a City Hall tradition since the late 1960s. Only within the last eight years, Page says, have the meetings taken a more formal tone. Before that, they were a means for the mayor and commissioners to commiserate over issues. "The discussion would be between `former three-term mayor` Bill Frederick and city commissioners about what was important in their districts," Page says. "There was a lot of camaraderie. 'Can you solve that problem? Can you take this off the agenda?' That is not the case now. They are run like council meetings."
Major presentations on light rail and redevelopment efforts in the Parramore area have been given at the agenda meeting. Issues pertaining to the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), an arm of city government responsible for revitalizing run-down neighborhoods, are discussed only during the agenda meeting. "Joe Citizen doesn't know what the CRA is," says Gordy. "The CRA is the City Council." With debate settled before the 2 p.m. council session gets under way, there's little to discuss because the agenda has been set and consensus has been determined.
"Actually, `regular` commission meetings are show trials," says Doug Head, chairman of the Orange County Democratic Executive Committee. "No substantive business occurs there."
That's why Page calls them "so-moved, seconded" meetings. "If there's nothing on `public` appearances that is controversial," he says, "the meeting is virtually over."
Last fall, a "prominent corporate businessman" asked Page what time he should be at the council meeting to hear commissioners discuss light rail. Page told him 2 p.m. Yet the light-rail discussion that day actually occurred during the 1 p.m. meeting. And by Page's account, it was a "knock-down, drag-out" affair.
When commissioners reconvened at 2 p.m., there was nothing left for the businessman to observe -- only a vote.
"He was very upset," Page recalls.
Televised broadcast: The logistics of putting council meetings on TV are remarkably easy. Ben Hardcastle, communications manager for Orange TV, says his government-access channel wouldn't charge then a penny to do it. The station would televise the meetings as they are shot now. But the poor quality (meetings are videotaped from a distance, and it's often hard to tell who's talking) likely would attract few viewers.
Hardcastle says if the city wants to do it properly, it should spend $300,000 on better lighting, new cameras and robotics to move them. Though that's not chump change, it represents only one-one-thousandth of this year's $206 million city budget.
Still, not everyone is thrilled with the idea.
Before he was elected four years ago, Commissioner Bill Bagley favored televised meetings. Then he discovered how much grandstanding occurs when speakers from the audience approach the podium at the end of meetings. "Meetings run relatively smoothly till you get a group of people who want to stir things up," he says. "Once they start stirring the pot, you get other people jumping in."
"The commissioners feed off each other," Bagley continues. If council meetings were a broadcast live, the city would be encouraging "controversy and confrontation." He adds, "`Commissioners` would ask questions because it looks good on television. ... You're going to make great television, but you'll make terrible government."
Besides, who'd watch, wonders Lew Oliver, chief of the Orange County Republican Executive Committee. "On paper it all makes sense, but I question whether there is a real-world demand," he says. "I rarely use absolutes, but my guess is that you will find that no one -- not one, not four, not six or eight -- no humans at all will watch the meetings."
Head sharply disagrees. "I know for a fact that the broadcasting of county commission meetings has altered the way we are governed," says the Democratic Committee chairman.
He concedes there will be more grandstanding with televised meetings. But county commissioners whose words and actions are broadcast over television can't hide from public scrutiny as much as they could if only 50 people were sitting in the audience -- especially when their meetings are rebroadcast three times a week.
"There is, in fact, more posturing, more speaking to the camera, more of an awareness that commissioners are being watched," Head says. "As an overall balance, that's a good thing -- not the posturing, but that ... the participants perceive themselves as being watched."
Adds City Commissioner Gordy: "It might promote grandstanding. But that's not a bad thing for some of these boring City Council meetings. It might get some people stirred up. I don't think that's a problem."
Hardcastle, the Orange TV communications manager, knows his channel is changing the way we are governed. He says it's because the station has a large number of regular viewers. According to a UCF survey conducted last year, 67.9 percent of those surveyed have watched an Orange County Commission meeting. Another 48.3 percent said they watch other programs on Orange TV.
Hardcastle says county commissioners routinely walk into the grocery store or other public places only to hear someone say they saw them on television. "`Constituents` can tell commissioners what's right or what's wrong about an issue," Hardcastle says. "They're engaged in a way they haven't been before. That's what TV can do."
Bagley remains unconvinced. "I regularly have people stop me and say they've seen me on television, and our meetings aren't televised," he says. "People don't really watch `Orange TV`. If they're surfing the channel, they might watch it for three or four minutes."
He further points to the woeful turnout for the runoff election he lost to Patty Sheehan. "Ninety percent of the eligible voters in my district didn't vote for her or me," he says. "Forty percent of the eligible people in my district aren't even registered to vote. If they're not going to take time to vote, they're not going to take time to watch TV."
Evening council meetings: Nearly every municipality in Central Florida, not to mention public school boards, holds its regular meetings at night. Why not Orlando?
Well, Orlando does -- sort of. Four times a year, the city convenes a night meeting in one of the six commission districts. Mostly, though, attendance isn't very good at these, anyway. "They're more of a show," Gordy says. "Mostly we have awards presentations. There's never much business discussed."
Oliver, the Republican chairman and a former Orlando assistant city attorney, says it's likely to be cost-prohibitive to run meetings at night, since the city would have to run its air conditioning and lights longer. Besides, he says, it's just as easy for residents to attend day meetings as it is to attend night meetings.
"We're a service-sector economy, and a lot of people work nights," he says. "We don't live in Leave It to Beaver times, where everybody watches TV after 5 p.m."
Still, evening meetings have their fans. "If you're a middle-level manager or hourly employee, it's impossible to get off of work to attend `daytime` meetings," says Jewett, the UCF professor.
There might even be another benefit: more candidates for city commission, which is clearly intended to be a part-time job. "It's definitely a possibility," Jewett says. "You might open it up to a wider pool for the same reasons that some occupations can't get to meetings now. For hourly employees or lower-level management expected to be at afternoon meetings, it's very difficult for them to attend meetings. I would definitely say that it would open it up to a wider pool of candidates."
The website: If there's a success story brewing among the city's projects to reach out to its constituents, the website may be it. The site already get 1 million hits a month, though Fred Mays says there's no way to tell whether they're coming from inside or outside City Hall.
Imagine how much more traffic the site will see once it is upgraded, giving computer users the ability to pay parking tickets, taxes and apply for permits over the Internet. "Eventually," says Mays, "the city will be able to receive electronically the plans and drawings of architects and homeowners."
Yet the thing to remember is Mays himself. His was, after all, a single voice asking for change. He got it -- and so might Orlando, if we push for it.
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