Nearly empty City Council chamber
The pledge of allegiance in nearly-empty City Council chambers on Aug. 9. Image from city TV

The COVID-19 pandemic is turning representative democracy on its head. Local elected officials meet in empty chambers, deliberating important quality-of-life issues that will shape the destiny of San Diegans for years to come.

Meanwhile, beyond the walls of city hall, businesses, educators, nonprofits, and media outlets are harnessing the power of technology to regroup and respond to the coronavirus pandemic. But their collective, can-do spirit is absent from the halls of municipal government. Rather, city officials seem content to throw halfhearted solutions at the challenge at hand: cultivating meaningful public participation in the legislative process at a time when San Diegans are expected to shelter-at-home.

The City of San Diego’s response to this important task lacks the imagination required of all San Diegans at this critical time.

Here’s the city’s plan: Community members, hoping to weigh in on city council meeting agenda items, are required to express their opinions in writing, using a form posted on the city’s website. Comments must be submitted electronically, by 4 p.m., the day before a council meeting. The number of comments read into the council record is limited to the first 30 submitted. Comments submitted after 4 p.m., but arriving 15 minutes prior to the beginning of council meetings, are recorded in the written record of the agenda item after the meeting takes place.

The city’s underwhelming response is disappointing, but not surprising. That’s because many San Diegans feel alienated from local government. They show up to city council meetings, waiting patiently for their turn to testify, only to have their concerns dismissed by their elected representatives. When votes are taken opposing their views, community members must live with the consequences of public policies that often place business industry profits ahead of neighborhood character and quality of life.

Why is public participation in virtual city council meetings limited to written comments, of 200 words or less, and submitted on a “webform” posted on the city’s website? Is it possible city officials believe the act of having a government employee read residents’ comments into the public record will capture their constituents’ hopes, values and life experiences?

Instead, a spark of imagination, coupled with a sincere commitment to hear the concerns of community residents, would inspire a range of opportunities for public participation in city council meetings during the coronavirus pandemic and into the future.

Technology offers people a variety of ways to stand up and speak out. But voicing one’s opinion in the form of an electronic speakers slip — in the age of Skype, Zoom and Instagram — is a low-tech, one-dimensional response to the goal of promoting public engagement in the democratic process.

Molly Bowman-Styles

San Diegans live in a city celebrated for its innovation economy. Giving voice to their ideas and aspirations should be a goal embraced by legislators, with guidance provided by tech industry leaders, not tossed by the wayside as a matter of inconvenience.

San Diegans deserve better.

A few tweaks to the city’s website would allow residents to submit their public testimony by video, voice or electronic message. Not every San Diego resident has access to a computer, but most have access to a phone.

Residents lacking the technology to submit video testimony, should be able to post a photo of themselves, along with their spoken or written testimony. Putting faces to opinions is important in a truly democratic society, where freedom of self-expression is valued and supported.

Capturing the testimony of residents who are not English speakers also must be achieved. San Diego is their home, too. Translation software offers a way to represent their views, respectfully and accurately, in the civic record.

Public engagement in the democratic process shouldn’t be an afterthought during the COVID-19 pandemic. American Democracy — inspired by the ideal “Out of Many, One” — should flourish during times of national crisis.

If San Diegans truly are “in this together,” Mayor Kevin Faulconer and members of the San Diego City Council must make promoting community participation in the legislative process a top priority.

A second-generation San Diegan, Molly Bowman-Styles is the president of Windansea Communications.

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