Not since Paul Goldman successfully led the effort to put the mayor at-large question up for citywide referendum has there been so much interest in local citizen petitioning. Of course, the ease, accessibility, and novelty of online petitioning have added to the attraction. In this past year we have seen local petitions, spread by social media, on Broad Street parking (833 signatures), urban chickens (226 signatures), water rates (1,400 signatures) and the environmental conditions at a public elementary school. That last one gained over 20,000 signatures from all over the world after ‘going viral’.
While there have been a few exceptions, the official response to these citizen petitions, unfortunately, has been tepid at best. Government officials might quickly promise to follow up on issues, but getting the press to follow up on the promises has not been that easy. Despite the fact that many of these local petitions implicitly asked for support and signatures from challengers and incumbents, the fall election rhetoric tended to be superficial and avoided the local petition issues. (One notable exception: Charles Diradour, running for 2nd District City Council, made a valiant attempt to make the City’s inordinately high minimum water rate a top campaign issue). Still, while one can argue about the overall effectiveness of recent petition efforts, they did undoubtedly raise the bar for public debate.
Yet there is one local, online petition whose cause should interest all reform-minded Richmond citizens and most certainly deserves attention from a new Richmond City Council–the one from the Richmond Open Government Project that calls for making Richmond City Hall an open government equal to the best in Virginia – www.thepetitionsite.com/684/909/771/
In a nutshell, this petition asks for commitment from citizens and public officials to raise the City of Richmond’s open government standards to, at the very least, match those of other large cities in the Commonwealth. (In addition, on a sharper edge, the petition clarifies some of the long-standing state code violations by the City regarding its public meeting documentation.) By asking for more open government, this petition puts democratic aspirations for accessibility and accountability front and center for all citizens and, by extension, calls attention to all petitions.
However, as with many of the petitions, though the response to the Open Government petition has been positive, the numbers are underwhelming. It still has a long way to go in gaining broad attention. Of recent candidates, only the aforementioned Diradour, and two City Council candidates in the Fifth District, Lee Shewmake and Parker Agelasto signed it. Of all the incumbent public officials, only 2nd district school board member Kimberly Gray signed on for open government.
At the same time, public statements in response have been very favorable and the picture painted in response to the petition is that open government issues have been addressed or are in the process of being addressed.
The reality is less than satisfactory- after the Open Government petition was launched, city hall announced that it would put videos of Council’s Formal meetings on the city’s website. Videos of the Informal meetings, where the blunt deliberations usually occur, are still not on the website. Three months ago the Council President said “[w]e’ll look at their petition and see if there are some suggestions that would make good sense to keep our citizens better informed.” As yet, the city has not announced that any of the 104 suggestions have been implemented.
So has this petition been a bust? Is that it? Not at all, says the Richmond Open Government Project. It may be an overused cliché, but organizers say their push for reform is more of a deliberate march than an open sprint. They always regarded the 2016 election as a more important barometer of success than the one this fall. The petition has served its purpose already in that it delivered the initial challenge.
So what now? With the New Year and a new city council, the Richmond Open Government Project has a new message: the time of notification is over. The petition is still open to more signatures, but it is time to also move forward with more members and not just signatures. To that end, look for a ‘larger umbrella’ meeting for a new organization with a new name and larger mission for better government.
C. Wayne Taylor