By Steve Harrison, The Charlotte Observer
Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts said recently the city had been “listening” to the public about changes it made earlier this year to the public forum – the biggest of which was to no longer broadcast or record the 30 minutes when citizens get to address City Council on any topic.
Roberts said the city was bringing the forum back to the main council chamber, instead of holding it in a small meeting room without city TV cameras.
But while the mayor celebrated the change, she didn’t say the forum would still be kept off the Government Channel. The city has cameras ready to broadcast the forum, but only starts the broadcast when citizens finish addressing council members.
“I think this definitely is something people should be seeing,” said Hector Vaca, an immigration activist who has addressed council members several times during the forum. “Our government should be more transparent. People shouldn’t have to wait on the media to report it, but to also see it live. Not everyone is able to make it to the Government Center because they have families to take care of.”
Vaca also said it’s possible council members wanted to turn the TV cameras off because “there has been a lot of criticism of local government recently. That may play a role in it.”
In September 2016, a week after the Keith Lamont Scott shooting, council held a regularly scheduled forum, which was broadcast on TV.
With the chamber filled with Black Lives Matter activists and others upset about the shooting, Roberts and council extended the forum, essentially letting everyone vent. The meeting quickly slid into chaos. Speakers cursed at council members. Some threatened them.
That same meeting also produced some poignant moments. Zianna Oliphant, a young girl, spoke through tears about her and other people’s fears of the police.
In February, immigration activists, including Vaca, filled the council chamber’s during the televised citizen’s forum. They too cursed at elected officials, and even succeeded in shutting down the entire meeting. After a standoff, elected officials went into the lobby and began talking with people in small groups. There were no television cameras in the lobby, and the situation was quickly diffused.
After those incidents, council members decided in the spring to move the forum to a small meeting room on the second floor of the Government Center.
But council members didn’t like that arrangement either.
At the city’s Aug. 28 meeting, Roberts said the council’s Governance and Accountability committee had been reviewing where to hold the forum. The chair of the committee, Republican Kenny Smith, said it would be better to hold it in the main chamber.
“There was a little bit of confusion for speakers from time to time, and it is quite disruptive as people try to get in and out,” Smith said about holding the forum in the meeting room. “There were some safety concerns with the amount of people that could be in the room that were standing in all areas.”
Smith, the Republican candidate for mayor, did not mention the city would not be televising the forum. No other council members asked if the forum would be on TV.
In an interview Monday, Smith said council members felt that televising the forum would “not be productive.”
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