Austin City Council considers expanding video conferencing for public comment

City Council considers videoconferencing for Austinites wanting to share their opinions (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — When the city council meets again in January, members plan to consider expanding video-conferencing capabilities to different districts. The motivation is to make your voice heard, but without the headache. The move would allow the public to comment during “general citizen’s communication” and avoid the trip downtown.

On the city council message board, District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen wrote, “My office has been working with City Hall IT staff to explore expanding this option to other parts of town, possibly to libraries. This work is in-line with both Austin’s Smart Cities initiative as well as recommendations from the Task Force on Community Engagement.”

The move seeks to build upon the success of a pilot program in District 6, which launched back in September in Council Member Don Zimmerman’s district office. At the time, Zimmerman said, “This will save residents from the hassle of driving downtown, find parking, give their Citizen Communication, then have to fight traffic on the drive home.”

Sharon Blythe, who participated in the District 6 pilot program, told KXAN the technology saved her time and energy.  “I think a lot of people are intimidated to have to go clear down to city hall, because of the travel time and their personal time, as well as the intimidation sitting there under all the TV cameras and all the people listening,” Blythe said, expressing that it would be a good enhancement for council members to have district offices.

But right now, District 6 is the only one with a local office. That’s why city staff identified six libraries in other parts of town that have video conferencing capabilities.

  • Carver Branch: District 1
  • Ruiz Branch: District 3
  • Little Walnut Creek Branch: District 4
  • Manchaca Road Branch: District 5
  • Yarborough Branch District 7
  • Hampton Branch at Oak Hill: District 8

One recommendation is to start a new pilot program by choosing two of these libraries. In a memo, staff explained no libraries are listed in Districts 2 and 10 because currently, they do not have video conferencing capabilities. City Hall is located in District 9. The anticipated cost is less than $5,000. From there, staff would need to determine if it’s feasible to expand to all six for general citizen’s communication.

“We’re in an era where we want to be more representative of everyone in the city,” Council Member Kitchen said. “We pride ourselves on being an innovative city and using technology in a way that’s on the forefront. So this makes sense for us, in our city, to try this.”

KXAN asked Kitchen, who’s backing the push to reach more people, if she sees a downside to forgoing face-to-face contact.

“I don’t think there is anything lost in terms of me as a council member understanding what someone is concerned about or sharing with us what their fears are,” she responded.

Blythe says the conversation shouldn’t stop with technology, emphasizing the benefits of district offices that libraries can’t provide.

“It gives the constituents a lot better opportunity to visit with their council member, maybe their staff more easily” Blythe said.

Kitchen agreed it’s a topic worth visiting. Council Member-elect Jimmy Flannigan tells KXAN he plans to keep the District 6 field office, along with the ability to video conference for public comment.