City Hall in the Age of YouTube: It’s Time to Make Irvine City Council Meetings Accessible
I am very new to the Irvine Watchdog scene, but I have been quickly impressed with this small cadre of volunteers who stand watch over every council and commission meeting to tirelessly advocate for transparency in Irvine government. They are armed with an extensive knowledge of procedural considerations, funding requirements, and all the ins and outs of Irvine politics. And they are aptly named. If a councilmember puts a foot afoul of the Brown Act, or proposes diverting funds from one thing to another, you can safely bet that you’ll hear the Watchdogs’ bark.
But, like any group that throws itself passionately into the intricacies of any realm of human endeavor, I think there may have been a tendency to lose the forest for the trees. It’s very understandable. Government is complicated, and a sentinel in service to its transparency has to grapple with initiatives, jargon, laws, special tax districts, election campaigns and funding, and the rest. But that diffuses the energies of such a small group of activists, and I fear it distracts them from addressing the very first question that, in my view, a transparency activist needs to address. And that question is this:
Can the average person easily attend or watch a city council meeting?
You can’t, after all, even start to attend to more complicated concerns of transparency if you can’t see the council at work to begin with. In my view, this is Job #1 of achieving transparency. And I think the answer to the question is a resounding “well, sort of, but usually no.”
Irvine City Council meetings have recently become open to the public again as safety concerns around the pandemic are softening. Any citizen or resident is free to attend and make comments. In that way, municipal government is one of the most directly democratic institutions that we have.
But the meetings start at 4 p.m. on Tuesdays. So, if you, like most of America, have ironclad obligations during regular business hours and beyond, attending in person is a big ask.
The same complication arises with watching the meeting live on ICTV’s Channel 30, or streaming it. Not many employers smile on watching live television at work.
So that leaves watching it after the fact. One quick Google search will take you to a web page, which will in turn take you to another webpage that looks like it was designed at the turn of the millennium. Confusingly, it has the word “legacy” in its URL, so you spend maybe a minute of paralysis wondering if you’re on a defunct webpage. But, once you convince yourself that you’re at the right place, and your eyes adjust to the densely-packed verbiage that’s hiding what you came for, you have at your disposal footage of every meeting you could want to view. But is that as easy as we want to make this?
People are busy. America loves to overwork us, and we have kids to care for, and often aging parents who need us. Watchdogs are busy too, which makes their dedication to keeping up with all of this so admirable. But if the goal of transparency is to make the actions of government visible to the point that malfeasance is hard, then we have to make watching our electeds do their jobs something that’s as easy as possible for the rest of us.
Meetings should be on weekends. 4 p.m. on a weekday is not a possibility for most of us. 7 p.m. on a weekday, is hardly better. We’re tired, and just getting dinner on the table can feel like a second job.
And why not stream and store footage of the meetings on the video-on-demand platforms that we actually use?
11 of Orange County’s 34 cities already offer video of their meetings on YouTube.
That’s Costa Mesa, Dana Point, Fullerton, Garden Grove, Laguna Niguel, Lake Forest, Los Alamitos, Newport Beach, San Clemente, Santa Ana, and Villa Park. Surely a place that prides itself on being well-designed, managed, and modern like Irvine should have led the pack on that development.
For many of us, even with greater ease of access, fitting these proceedings into our lives will be a stretch. And that’s ok. Ideally, we shouldn’t be so consumed with how City Hall governs our lives that it begins to impede on us living our lives well. But government is important, and good government will always require our vigilance. And we need to make certain that we’re enabling average Irvinites to join in that vigilance whenever it becomes important for them to do so.