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When the Press Is the Public

Local government meetings may be open to all, but too often little attention is paid to them. Equipping everyday people to document what goes on is a way to make the most of these opportunities for civic participation.

Chicago Documenter sending live-tweet updates
A Chicago Documenter sends live-tweet updates from a meeting of Cook County’s Economic Development Advisory Committee.
(Photo: Pat Nabong for City Bureau)
Unpopular Supreme Court rulings, rollbacks of federal voter protections and Senate gridlock can make it feel as if representative democracy is slipping out of reach. Yet on the local level, a sturdy instrument of democracy is commonly overlooked. Public meetings can be powerful ways to influence local government decisions that directly affect our lives.

The problem is, with so few reporters now covering city hall, those decisions are often made with no one watching. At our nonprofit civic media organization, City Bureau, we’ve found that local residents can cover public meetings effectively, and it can transform both government behavior and the citizens themselves. It’s a model that’s ready to scale across the country.

The United States has more than 500,000 local elected officials who control over $2 trillion in local government spending. While Americans vote in local elections at less than half the rate of presidential ones, local officials likely have more direct impact on their day-to-day lives than the wrangling in Congress and most Supreme Court rulings. And a local alderman is a lot easier to hold accountable than the president.

It’s time we reconnect with local democracy, and there are public spaces already set up for this in nearly every municipality in America. Every day, elected and appointed officials host more than 1,500 public meetings, by conservative estimate. They cover everything from police accountability and local school curriculums to mosquito abatement plans and utility rates. As one researcher put it, these meetings are “the most commonly used, frequently criticized, yet least understood methods of public participation.”

And yet most of these meetings take place with nobody from the media present. So for the last four years, City Bureau has been training and paying everyday citizens to attend and take notes at public meetings. These Documenters have attended more than 2,800 public meetings in our hometown of Chicago and with our partner sites in Detroit, Cleveland and Minneapolis.

We’ve learned that open meetings are critical and often-overlooked spaces for civic participation. Many meetings happen with no one present except for public officials themselves. Others are attended only by those with an explicit interest in swaying them for private benefit: A county land bank meeting is attended only by developers; election board hearings are empty except for political actors.

Hot-button social issues frequently come up as well, particularly as the impact of those being debated at the national level filters down to the arena of local policymaking. With federal protections for abortion gone, for example, a search for “abortion” on returns over 100 mentions — mainly county- and city-level pledges to protect abortion rights in the four states where we currently operate.

Documenters file original notes and live-tweet threads and multimedia reports to the public and a network of newsrooms that use them to produce stories. A single person attending a public meeting can also change how officials behave. What’s more, Documenters have emerged as trusted sources of information for their communities, in a time when trust in institutions has never been lower.
Two Chicago Documenters reporting.
Two Chicago Documenters report from a meeting of Cook County’s Land Bank Authority via live tweets and written updates.
(Photo: Pat Nabong for City Bureau)
Federal and state law guarantees the protection of open meetings under most circumstances, and state-level open meetings laws determine the methods by which local public meetings are conducted. Our Documenters have found that local officials sometimes fall short of the law, often due to lack of training and the fact that no one has ever asked. And even where meetings are technically open to the public, the vast majority are held during working hours and, more recently, online. If you work during the day (like 80 percent of Americans) or don’t have home Internet (like 1 in 4 U.S. households), you’re mostly out of luck.

That’s why it’s more important than ever for what happens at local government meetings and hearings to be documented for the benefit of the wider public. This month City Bureau and the Documenters Network won a Stronger Democracy Award, which will deliver $10 million to expand our program across the country. It’s a major vote of confidence in the importance of public meetings and participatory media, at a time when our democracy is in distress.

There’s no reason a Documenters program can’t exist in every community in America; we share our playbook freely, and we’ve found that local philanthropists often recognize the program’s value. Americans have more than one way to participate in democracy, and a local government meeting can be an even more powerful venue than a voting booth.

Darryl Holliday is co-founder and executive director of national impact at City Bureau, where he manages the Documenters Network. He is a former beat reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times and the digital news site DNAinfo Chicago.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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