When we launched the Dallas Documenters program in Spring 2023, we intended to train and pay residents to attend public meetings like any other resident would and to break down access barriers. Documenter programs are nationwide, and we knew we would very quickly find issues accessing public meetings.
Although the Freedom of Information Act and the Texas Public Information Act ensure the public access to government information, our incoming Documenters had varying degrees of discomfort with understanding and engaging in with our local civic process.
The Documenters found that Dallas government entities rely on their websites to post and update meeting notices, date, location info, agendas, and live streams a majority of meetings. However, we found discrepancies in all this information.
What we’ve learned in the last several months is that public meetings in Dallas do provide avenues for residents to be informed and stay engaged. However, even as we trained Documenters and had them attend several meetings, they encountered recurring barriers and inconveniences that could make civic engagement less accessible for residents.
For example, the City of Dallas utilizes Legistar, a software to manage a legislative process and used by dozens of cities, to manage its public meetings information as far as next year. but these meetings can often be rescheduled, relocated or canceled since they haven’t been officially “posted.” Their Posted Public Meeting website is more accurate but lacks access to supplemental materials and information. These two sites aren’t always updated with the same information, creating confusion about a meeting.
There have been rare cases where an agenda is missing or blank before a meeting without it being updated on both sites and sometimes meetings are canceled without consistent updates.
Most local government agencies provide live streams of their meetings. However, Documenters have found the quality of these streams to be inconsistent. Speakers are often not easily identifiable and can’t even be clearly heard.
Entities also often use unique video conferencing applications that may make it difficult for tech-savvy users to access. Some provide a separate livestream channel on their website but are inconsistent about what meetings are or aren’t available through these channels.
The biggest issue for public meetings across the board are inconsistent availability of archived meetings and supplemental material.
Many Documenters, just like many residents, go into meetings with a need for context on agenda items. Local media provides some of that, but not all meetings are covered.
Government agencies now provide archives of previous meetings, and previous meeting minutes have been available for the public.
However, local government organizations consistently struggle to provide archives of some of their meetings in an appropriate time frame, if at all. Sometimes “smaller” meetings will never end up on their archive sites, with no consistency as to what meetings should or shouldn’t be expected to be available.
Furthermore, most government agencies struggle to provide timely and consistent supplemental agenda material to the public, information that’s especially crucial when agenda items are vague. Some boards and committees include their supplemental material before the meeting, some do not provide it until several days or weeks after, and some don’t provide it at all.
As part of our work, the notes we take are accessible to the public and as part of our sponsor the Dallas Free Press, meeting briefs with those notes are also available to the public.
We’re working to make access easier and have provided helpful links to commonly accessed city and county sites. As always, we’re looking for volunteers to help document meetings and make Dallas a more equitable and accessible place.
This op-ed was written for the Dallas Media Collaborative, a collaborative reporting project focused on solutions to the affordable housing crisis in Dallas. Dallas Free Press and Dallas Documenters are part of the Dallas Media Collaborative, launched by the Solutions Journalism Network with funding from the Knight Foundation. Find out more at dallasmediacollab.com.
Tips for staying connected to public meetings:
- Get context for a meeting when available: utilize their websites but also Google the committee or agenda items to see if they’ve been written about by local news media.
- Be patient with yourself when navigating websites: they’re not the most user-friendly and information can often be duplicated. You may need to search specific things multiple times to find something.
- Read agendas beforehand: agendas should be available three days before the meeting, many are available before.
- Search for archives: Archival videos and past agendas, especially of briefings or workshops, can provide more context about items being voted on. Many major items are talked about over several meetings before being voted on.
- Familiarize yourself with members of a board or committee: try to attend at least one meeting in person to better understand the roles, people involved and who represents you.
- Test the live stream link: this may be an issue on your end or the site itself.
- Don’t be afraid to reach out to city staff for questions: email board members or city staff about questions you have or material you would like to access.
- It may be helpful to choose a meeting or set of meetings to focus on: meetings can be different, and understanding the context and the way the meetings flow will allow you to feel more comfortable when asking questions, following pieces of legislation, and participating in public speaking.
Dallas Documenters Notes: https://dallas-tx.documenters.org/reporting/
Dallas Free Press Meeting Briefs: https://dallasfreepress.com/author/DocumenterNotes/
City of Dallas:
Posted Public Meetings: https://dallascityhall.com/government/citysecretary/Pages/Public-Meetings.aspx
Meetings Calendar: https://cityofdallas.legistar.com/Calendar.aspx
Live and archived videos: https://dallastx.new.swagit.com/views/113
Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART):
Public meetings and past agendas: https://www.dart.org/about/public-access-information/board-meetings-information
Live and archived videos: https://dart.new.swagit.com/views/561/committees-archive
Meetings and archived videos: https://www.dallascollege.edu/about/trustees/pages/board-videos.aspx
Dallas Independent School District (DISD):
Meeting dates: https://www.dallasisd.org/cms/lib/TX01001475/Centricity/Domain/455/071023boardmeetings.pdf
Meeting agendas: https://go.boarddocs.com/tx/disd/Board.nsf/vpublic?open
Live and archived videos: https://www.dallasisd.org/Page/663
Dallas County: https://dallascounty.civicweb.net/portal/