Statement from UWSA on the City of Austin Public Comment System

Dear Mayor Adler and Austin City Council Members,

As members of Undoing White Supremacy Austin, we are writing to condemn the city council’s inequitable access to the public hearing process.

Pre-COVID, it was already challenging for residents to take time out of our busy schedules to attend city council hearings in person, particularly for individuals with children, multiple jobs, or other family commitments. The limited space at City Hall for children, the restrictive rules about bringing food into city hall, and the long hours waiting for our one minute to speak, all negatively affected attendance at city council hearings. That so many people turned up on many occasions for key debates despite these challenges is a testament to the work being done to engage and organize residents to speak their minds as well as the work community members did to respond to the challenges, including organizing child care, transportation, and food (until the city staff decided to ban almost all food in the building).

However, the situation has gotten dramatically worse during the pandemic stay-in-shelter period. The registration process (including city confirmation) is online only with no call-in or text option which due to Austin’s large “digital divide” makes this much less accessible for many residents. The phone call-in system set up for the virtual meetings is inadequate to meet the needs of the democratic process. Residents have had to call in early to get in line and then wait on hold for hours, at times over seven hours. There is no option to call in after normal business hours despite the hearings typically extending well into the evening. Even with the process changes, if our calls get dropped we lose our place and end up at the back of the line. People report having their calls dropped numerous times during one hearing. Only people with a great deal of privilege in respect to flexible time, work, and family obligations are able to repeatedly call back and drop to the end of the speaker’s queue. Throughout there is no confirmation of one’s place in line or even whether a person was successfully put back in line. The interpretation system is faulty and inconsistent; if someone’s call is dropped they lose their place in line and the opportunity to have an interpreter. Furthermore, the interpretation is often of poor quality. All of this makes it that much more difficult for Austin’s immigrant communities to participate.

This system re-creates serious inequities. It enables access to city council hearings only for individuals who have the time and resources to wait for hours as well as phone plans that enable them to be on hours-long calls. People with children at home,  who have to leave the house to work, or who have limited internet/phone access are at a dramatic disadvantage. 

We recognize that the process is now changing to a system where people who sign up online in advance can receive a call from the city at the time they will speak, but it is unclear what will happen if residents miss this call. The changing process makes it difficult for people to plan whether and how they will be able to engage in city council budget meetings. Issues regarding access for people without internet access and who are unable to testify during work hours remain. The one minute time allotment is not sufficient for people directly impacted by policing and budget inequities to share their experiences, and the current system does not allow for other residents who would like those experiences to be heard to donate their time. The city-curated list of people who receive more time to speak is not an equitable or transparent system. 

The current system is still actively dissuading many members of the Austin community from testifying. For example, our understanding is that Communities of Color United and Grassroots Leadership will not be organizing their members to testify at the budget hearings. By failing to create an accessible process through which residents can give substantive input in the budget process, the city is privileging the voices of predominantly managerial class and wealthy white communities over working class and poor people of color communities. As proposals to address structural racism in our policing system and inequitable distribution of city resources are at the forefront of this year’s budget conversations, it is more essential than ever for these communities to be heard. To create a process that no parent or service industry worker can reasonably access is one more manifestation of structural racism from the city. We are dismayed that, despite calls for an open and accessible budget process from organizations with members directly impacted by policing, the city has not remedied these issues. We demand the failures of this process be recognized. We call for a more accessible system to be created for immediate use at the July 30th budget hearing, along with a plan to amend the harm to the democratic process the previous hearings have imposed.

We strongly support the demands of Communities of Color United and Grassroots Leadership regarding the city’s proposed budget, including defunding APD by at least 50% and investing in R.E.A.L. solutions (RISE Fund, Equity Office, Austin Public Health, and Low-Income Housing). You will be hearing from us in other ways during this budget process and for the long haul as we proactively engage residents across the city districts now and in advance of the city council elections, redistricting efforts and next year’s budget process. 

Thank you for your attention to this critical matter. 

Members of Undoing White Supremacy Austin,

Andrea Black, Julia Von Alexander, Jim Casey, Rachael Shannon, Bethany Carson, Christel Erickson-Collins, Rachel Manning

One thought on “Statement from UWSA on the City of Austin Public Comment System”

  1. Thank you so much for writing and sending this letter to City Council! I agree with all of your statements. The City must make much needed changes in everything. Thank you.

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