Miguel Ortega

Our local democracy has a flu and it’s only getting sicker under the leadership of the Tucson City Council.

Consider only a few of the symptoms:

• The Mayor now personally chooses who gets to speak at “call to the audience.” So, even if you pack the room in support of a particular issue, the mayor may only choose a couple of people to represent your side. Who speaks is now totally up to the mayor.

• Official City Council meeting minutes no longer provide a synopsis of citizen “call to audience” statements. Even if you are lucky enough to be picked by the mayor to speak, the minutes will not reflect any details of what you had to say.

• The council no longer meets every Tuesday. Their public meetings have been reduced to only two meetings a month. In the old days, if there was a burning matter an individual or group wanted to address the council about, you only had to wait a few days to take advantage of “Call to the Audience” during a regularly scheduled meeting. Now you may have to wait two full weeks until a meeting comes around.

• Registered neighborhood associations no longer receive support for the regular production of newsletters to keep residents informed. Now only one mailing a year is allowed. Many of the most active constituents are elderly home owners that are not very familiar with modern technology. For many years, they enjoyed receiving traditional newsletters on a regular basis from neighborhood associations to stay informed and engaged. Not anymore.

• The city general email address and phone hotline has been eliminated. Both were once available to the public so they could communicate with the entire council with one phone call or one email. It used to be as easy as one click of the keyboard or one voice mail recording. This is no longer the case.

• The current city budget proposal includes the “restructuring” of Channel 12, the city channel that provides televised coverage of city council meetings. There is talk of only providing an online option to view council meetings. This is very problematic for those that are homebound or elderly and depend on televised meetings. Many have complained that this online technology - if you even have access to it in the first place - would only support up to 250 viewers at a time. That is just ridiculous.

• The current city budget proposal also includes complete elimination of the public access television station Access Tucson, as well as the sale of the building that houses their production studios and offices. Listen, the council has been killing our local free speech headquarters softly over several years now. Never mind that the “funding” the city provides Access Tucson actually comes from subscribers to Cox. The cable company is leasing your public right of way to run their cables (under sidewalks) and is making millions. It was because of Access Tucson that the city was able to successfully negotiate franchise agreements resulting in millions of dollars for the general fund. But, as far as the council sees it, there is no room for free speech downtown. It’s just in the way.

Maybe we are all just a little bit in the way. After all, the First Amendment can really be inconvenient, loud, nagging, obnoxious, and a little dirty and perhaps not recognized as all that important when we take inventory of our everyday worries.

Speaking of inconvenient, loud and nagging: recently, Supervisor Ally Miller suggested that Pima County make all televised supervisor meetings available online and on demand to the public. Her idea was rejected by all of her colleagues.

How about that?

Sure, I don’t agree with many of Ms. Miller’s ideas or tactics. But on this particular proposal, she was spot on. Since then, she has been making arrangements herself to have the meetings taped and uploaded to YouTube. Sound crazy? The county has a policy of getting rid of all tapings of supervisor meetings after one year. Don’t believe me? Call them and ask for a DVD of a meeting in 2012. You won’t get it. They don’t exist.

Who is crazy now?

Listen, the way I see it, transparent and democratic governance is good for business, for our neighborhoods and for our future. Let’s take these symptoms seriously by making a more transparent and open City Hall a core value during our next budget proceedings.

Miguel Ortega’s “Locally Owned” on KVOI 1030 AM returns this May.