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Civil Rights Group Calls for Public Meeting Text Alerts

Government agencies should make public participation easier by sending text notices when meeting agenda items come up for discussion, civil rights activist Shane Harris said at a news conference Wednesday.

text message
(TNS) — Government agencies should make public participation easier by sending text notices when meeting agenda items come up for discussion, civil rights activist Shane Harris said at a news conference announcing the proposal Wednesday.

Harris, president of the People's Association of Justice Advocates, said his organization has called on government agencies, including the San Diego City Council, County Board of Supervisors, San Diego Unified School District and County Office of Education, to create text systems to alert people when items they are following are open for consideration.

As government bodies began streaming meetings during the pandemic, members of the public have waited hours on hold to make phone or video comments. Changes to the order of agendas make it harder to guess when a topic will come up, and speakers sometimes take time away from work, school or parenting to wait in queues to address a local board or council.

"As they called into these meetings, the people are not prioritized at public meetings held by our county boards and city councils," Harris said. "As people sought to chime in on those issues, they struggled because of the technology challenges."

Kasey Zahner, a member of the gun reform organization MOMS Demand Action, said the long wait times to deliver public comment discourages participation in government meetings.

"I have waited one, two or even three hours to speak on topics that affect the safety of students and families," Zahner said, adding that she has watched other participants leave meetings before their agenda item came up. "Having to wait on hold an indeterminate amount of time creates barriers to civic participation."

Harris said a text system could reduce wait times by alerting speakers to the specific items they wish to address. Calling his proposal "Boost Democracy," he said the technology to do it isn't novel. Restaurants already use text notifications to let patrons know when their tables are ready, so creating similar apps to alert speakers to agenda items should not be difficult, he said.

Abdur Rahim-Hameed, President of the National Black Contractors Association, said that small companies are particularly disadvantaged by long wait times at public meetings. Although larger firms may be able to send a represenative to speak on their behalf, small business owners can't spare the time away from work. A text system would make that more manageable, he said.

"Since we have this technology and are living in a technological era, it's time for us to use the tools that are available to us," Rahim-Hameed said.

Harris said he has broached the idea with officials at key San Diego agencies, and expects some to adopt a text notification system soon.

The San Diego County Office of Education received the proposal Wednesday and is reviewing it, spokeswoman Music Watson said.

Scott Barnett, chief of staff for county Supervisor Joel Anderson, said the supervisor would likely be interested in the proposal, which is in line with his efforts to increase government transparency.

"While I am not aware of it being brought to our office directly, I'm sure it's something the supervisor would support, and in fact the transparency sub-committee meeting is coming up soon, and I will put it on a list of suggested items we are already compiling for the supervisor," Barnett said.

© 2021 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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