Often when marginalized community members in the city of Austin have issues, they are told to go to the meetings instead of “complaining.” Because the dominant narrative has calibrated society to think that meetings are consistently productive, people come to the meetings and are disappointed at the outcomes.The truth is that meetings have become a silencing technique for those who are maintaining inequitable realities while blaming constituents. Thanks to a variety of networking platforms and varieties of segregation, meetings are performed almost as a courtesy in a nod to the Open Meetings Act. However, there are countless examples of how meetings fail to respect the needs of the most vulnerable residents.
While governing bodies are required to have open meetings to the public, most of the decisions that are made on behalf of local governments depend on the availability of the staff for a meeting. There are private individuals who work with moneyed interests who watch the behavior of different staff members, and seek out who will be most vulnerable to persuasion. Unlike elected officials, staff members are in a unique position in which they work with and for elected officials; depending on their biases, entire communities could be disregarded because of disfavor of staff.While many staff members work diligently to fulfill their tasks and have no specific authority, upper level staff generally have autonomy whether or not the budget coincides with their authority. Thus, instead of equal access to decision-makers, local governments enjoy constituents vying for the attention of those in power, due the detriment of distressed neighborhoods.
If that were not enough, staff also determines how the meetings will run, i.e. who gets to speak first and/or present materials. When real estate developers show up at meetings, often they have made arrangements with staff or even in some cases, governing board members themselves. Constituents are forced to coordinate with one another especially if they are unable to wait until all the staff and experts have spoken, and all the decision-makers have completed questioning of staff and experts. In Austin, like many cities, commissions, boards, committees and task forces are volunteers with outside jobs, so often the first impression they receive can be the last perspective they absorb. Even if a community organizer races to the meeting and signs up before anyone else, staff has already predetermined who will go before anyone on the sign-up sheet, which could be the difference between neighborhoods getting displaced.
Most importantly, much of the staff and experts have put together a great deal of material for the decision-makers to review. Not everybody in the audience can see the information but then the only consideration is for the governing body, not the public. Even if there are independent experts who are part of community organizations, those people are not given the opportunity to distribute their materials the way other experts are. In short, the governing body is managed by staff, appeased to by staff and experts, and is usually frustrated with the public by the time the public actually gets to speak.