The amount of time people have to speak at Gainesville City Commission meetings just got a bit shorter. 

Commissioners voted last Thursday to reduce the number of chances people have to speak at meetings and took a crack at limiting what information would be available through the city government's email portal, which has been online for about five years. The changes will take effect after commissioners approve a resolution with the changes at an upcoming meeting.

Some commissioners pushed to remove the email system entirely and to not stream public comment, citing concerns about sensitive information being released and frequent irritable speakers.

“A lot of times I think people showboat for the cameras,” Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos said.

City meetings in recent months have grown contentious between officials and some members of the public, often times with hours spent with each party lecturing the other. In some cases, officials have received racist or threatening emails, while the officials themselves have accidentally shared private information, like tax returns and prescriptions, with constituents.

Elected leaders say the changes will lead to improved communication between the public and city government, though some city residents who spoke Thursday say it's a way to stifle criticism and hide public records.

Commissioners initially agreed last Thursday to allow people to write in their public comments, to have people sign up to speak, to create an online contact form to reach commissioners and to keep the current form of public comment.

With another vote immediately after, however, commissioners reduced public comment from two opportunities to one and decided not to allow the public to speak on procedural votes, such as whether to refer an issue to a committee or to adopt an agenda.

Last month, the commission also reduced free-speaking opportunities from three to two. People can still speak before all other votes where a final action is taken.

Several residents, mostly those who've often been critical of commissioners, spoke out against the proposals. Those who spoke in favor of the changes were mostly commissioners' campaign supporters.

In April, the commission asked the clerk’s office to research ways to improve its meeting efficiency. The clerk’s office reviewed email publishing policies at 33 cities around the country, 21 of which were in Florida, and in Alachua County.

The Jacksonville City Council and Alachua County were the only entities that published emails sent to elected officials online. In Jacksonville, however, only emails sent to the mayor and council as a whole are published.

Lindsay Hoffman, the city’s policy oversight administrator, said the publishing of commission emails puts the public at risk of unintentionally releasing information because they may not be familiar with the online portal. The city’s website also has no disclaimer to warn people prior to sending emails.

Staff and elected officials said Thursday that they already limit their email conversations with each other because the communications are easily accessible online.

Commissioners will discuss the issue again later but are considering options that would allow people to choose whether their email is posted online — though it remains a public record nonetheless — and whether to redact email senders' names and phone numbers.

The clerk’s office has argued that disabling the email portal would not affect transparency, as the emails could still be obtained through a public records request.

On July 11, The Sun made a public records request for about three weeks' worth of commission emails after some were missing from the portal. Though a cost estimate was provided for nearly two hours of work, the city has yet to provide an official invoice in the four weeks the request has been open.

A similar request was made Wednesday evening for Alachua County commission emails for the past month. The request was acknowledged and sent over in about an hour last Thursday morning.

County commissioners have not expressed concerns over their system and haven't discussed deleting the portal. The county's portal, unlike the city's, doesn’t allow the option to hide or delay the posting of emails, which are automatically posted online.

“We think correspondence with commissioners is an important part of our effort to be completely transparent with the public,” county spokesman Mark Sexton said.

The county began publishing its commission emails more than a decade ago to increase transparency and has since updated its system to make it more effective. Gainesville followed in 2014 for similar reasons.

City commissioners, whose emails can be published a day after being received, also showed interest in delaying emails from posting for about a week, even though they often are delayed. As of last Thursday evening, at least two commissioners had a week or more of emails missing from the portal.

 

Andrew Caplan is a Gainesville Sun staff writer.