Citizens don’t mind bringing concerns to virtual city commission meetings

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer

When Tallahassee residents get to talking and it takes up the first four hours of a City Commission meeting, board members will surely hear a lot. 

The topics were vast and at times some who plugged into the virtual meeting seemed confrontational. Perhaps more so than they would be in the chambers of City Hall.

The Sept. 9 meeting was one of the longest – 7 hours and 15 minutes – since the commission was forced by COVID-19 to have its meeting virtually. Mayor John Dailey and commissioners admit that virtual meetings are much different than having residents step to a lectern and state their case.

“It’s been a challenging six months because we had to figure out a new way to operate,” said Commission Jeremy Matlow. 

Mayor John Dailey

“I think the dynamics have very much changed. One of the best things about public participation is you have the right to go to a public meeting, look your officials in the eyes, tell them your position and see how they react. Unfortunately we are unable to do that right now.”

Folks had a lot to say during the citizens comment segment of the lengthy meeting. Commissioners heard from the family of stabbing victim Malik Jackson over release of a video of him just before he died. A caller continued an ongoing call for removing TPD Chief Lawrence Revell and City Manager Reese Goad. 

Speakers also delved into the Welaunee development. A protestor who was confronted by a counter-protestor at gun-point also appeal to the board. Commissioners also heard arguments against a proposed Citizen Review Board and from proponents of a Civilian Police Accountability Council.

Commissioner Jeremy Matlow

ould prefer to be meeting in person, but they’re making the best of virtual meetings because they give people a chance to have their issues discussed in public.

“The virtual meetings give an opportunity to a lot more people who otherwise might not participate because they may live out in Ox Bottom or someplace south of town that they can’t attend a meeting,” said Commissioner Curtis Richardson. 

Aaron Brock, the protestor who was held to the ground at gun-point while protesting, brought his plight to the commission. An attorney and former Navy officer, he questioned why charges weren’t brought against the man who had his gun at the protest in front of the Capital in late August.

“I broke up that fight,” Brock told commissioners, “and I got a gun in my face with his finger on the trigger.”

Matlow was empathetic toward Brock.

“You’ve got to relate to his story,” Matlow said. “He went to a protest and he ended up being traumatize and becoming a victim. It speaks to a real human element about why people demand better policies from their government because rules that we make have that real-world impact. I applaud his courage to log into a meeting and express that.”

In addition to participating in the virtual meetings, citizens could also have internet conversations with commissioners. Commission meetings could also be seen live on the city’s television channel WCOT.

Dailey said he’s had a few virtual meetings apart from those when the commission gets together. He’s even held social-distance meetings in the garden in front of City Hall.

But nothing is as effective as an old-fashioned face-to-face meeting, Dailey said.

“I prefer City Hall,” he said. “I prefer to meet face to face. I enjoy the citizens of Tallahassee and I enjoy it when we are meeting together. I look forward to that day when we could do it again.

“Until then, we are going to be as accommodating as possible with technology. It’s important that we have citizens’ input on all aspect of the meeting. We have worked really hard in order to make sure that citizens have the opportunity to participate in real time during the meetings.”