There are some challenges to getting participation at Phoenix City Council meetings. Meetings range from a few people in attendance to packed houses depending on the business at hand. Since my academic training is in civic engagement and since I’ve attended my fair share of meetings of the City Council to advocate for a myriad of issues, here are some of my thoughts to encourage citizen engagement and to get more participation in municipal government and governance.
1. Simulcast the proceedings in the City Hall atrium. The space is underutilized during the day except for special events, like the various events taking place for National Arts & Humanities Month. But because the City Council Chambers are a small venue, when contentious items are on the agenda, the 225 seats quickly fill and the Chambers become standing room only. So people can observe the City Council doing the people’s work, why not make the atrium of City Hall a space for civic engagement and dialogue on important municipal issues and a spot to simulcast City Council meetings? With a powerful projector, a large screen, and decent speakers, the Phoenix Channel 11 broadcast of City Council meetings can happen inside the atrium. Some might say this would be noisy for visitors to City Hall or those who work inside but this “noise” is your government at work.
2. Have speakers’ cards available outside the Council Chambers security checkpoint. Some times, people want to have their support or opposition for an item on the Council’s agenda on the record but do not necessarily wish to speak. In addition to writing their councilperson, one way to do that is to use the speaker’s card to indicate support or opposition, even if an individual doesn’t want to speak before the council. But the only way to do that is to go through the security checkpoint, fill out a card, then leave. Have some cards in a kiosk outside the entrance doors and a council staff person in charge of collecting them to be delivered to the council dais. An easy option would be have them available at spaces within City Hall before and during the meetings, like the City Hall atrium (see point #1, above).
3. Rethink the security screening process to get inside the Council Chambers. I have wondered why there is TSA-style screening to enter the Phoenix City Council chambers but not the other buildings of the City of Phoenix, like City Hall. I appreciate the desire to keep those in attendance at Council meetings as well as city staff and elected officials safe; however, one wonders why this started. As commented in point number 2, above, speakers’ cards are only available post-security, which makes it challenging for people to put their views on the official record even if they do not wish to speak.
4. Hold City Council meetings at various sites around the City of Phoenix. While this might not always work for all meetings, when business for particular areas of the City can be held at one time, take the meetings on the road to that area. So if items of general relevance to, say, inner west Phoenix and Maryvale are on the table, hold the meeting at the Adam Diaz Senior Center at 41 Ave and Thomas. This would also introduce all of the council members to all constituencies in the entire city and to hear from everyone, not just their own home district. In other words, let’s bring the people’s business to the people.
5. Move City Council meetings to the Orpheum Theatre. This one would require a lot of forethought and planning to do it right and to work out some logistical challenges but I think this is something that needs to be done. The City Council Chambers, built in the early 1960s, seats 225 people. While that might have worked for a city that was 1/3 the size of today, when there are contentious issues on the Council’s agenda, that space quickly becomes way too small. The City Council has held meetings at the 1,364-seat Orpheum Theatre in the past and it should start to do that in the future. The City Council Chambers building would still be used for smaller civic functions, like meetings of various City boards and commissions, lectures, and other civic events.