With the City Council’s recent move to make its meetings virtual, the dynamic for public comment has changed, and Black Lives Matter activists say their voices aren’t being heard.
During public comment periods, Council members can’t see those who call in to speak or who is “in the room” watching. The City’s new eComment platform provides a way for citizens to make comments during online meetings, but activists said it doesn’t have the same impact.
During a public hearing Wednesday, some Black Lives Matter activists experienced technical difficulties on a videoconference call with City Council members and the 246 written comments submitted weren’t read into the record, said Jourdyn “Jeaux” Parks, an organizer with Reliable Revolutionaries, one of the activist groups.
“We have been disrespected for too long and we have been silenced for too long,” Parks said at a press conference Thursday. Reliable Revolutionaries, part of the San Antonio Coalition for Police Accountability, joined several other groups to reiterate their calls to “defund the police” because they have lost their platform to comment on the police budget in person.
The written comments from the city’s new eComment platform were not intended to be read during meetings, a City spokeswoman said. However, they are entered into the public record and are available online.
Parks questioned whether those written comments are read by City Council members, and if they are, she said, then they’re choosing to “ignore” what the community is calling for.
Several Council members said Friday that they do read the comments.
A report is compiled by City staff that includes overall sentiment of the comments, including a pie chart graphic of those who support, oppose, or are neutral on each item. That report is sent to each Council member at the start of each meeting. See a copy of the report for Thursday’s Council meeting here.
“It’s my job to read the comments, and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t,” said Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8). “I [also] comb through them to see if a District 8 resident needs to be called back for further followup.”
When Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan (D2) reads the report, she looks out for District 2-related comments and often finds helpful information.
“The comments have been beneficial in the structure of how we question city staff and [have] aided in the formulation of the next policies we are working on,” Andrews-Sullivan said.
The SASeakUp budget survey, which a record-breaking 22,869 residents filled out, prioritized public health services, housing affordability programs, and senior and youth services, said Lexi Qaiyyim of Young Ambitious Activists. So why is so much money “proposed to go to the police?”
Under the proposal, funding for police would increase by $8 million to $487 million to cover a 5 percent pay increase for officers. Policing receives the largest chunk (38 percent) of funding out of the City’s $1.28 billion general fund.
“The City of Austin, they definitely defunded their police department, so I feel like San Antonio – we can do the same thing,” Qaiyyim said.
Austin City Council voted Thursday to cut its police budget by one-third ($150 million) and reallocate some of that funding to social services and alternative public safety measures. Other functions and associated funding was shifted to other departments.
“We are not just taking it to the streets, we are taking it to the excel spreadsheets,” said San Antonio activist Celeste Brown. “It’s been 74 days of protests and also 74 days of doing the damn policy work so they don’t have to.”
City Manager Erik Walsh has proposed a more “deliberate,” months-long community engagement process and analysis of what adjustments could be made to the police department before making drastic changes.
“I am recommending that we take a strategic approach to deal with organizational and foundational issues, set expectations for the role of police, receive community input from all and set a path forward,” Walsh said in an email.
Next week, City Council is slated to vote on a resolution that would symbolically commit the City to that process and other areas of police reform, such as the police union budget. Another non-scientific survey for the resolution found those respondents split on whether to defund the police.
That non-binding document is not enough, said Marlon Davis of Black Futures Collective. He called that effort “political theater” as is the proposal in the budget to make Juneteeth, which celebrates the emancipation of slaves in the U.S., a City-observed holiday.
“That’s great, but none of us asked for that, and that’s not why we’re out here to begin with,” Davis said.