For the record: How a ‘strange hobby’ became a public service

Tensions ran high at Charlottesville City Council meetings in the aftermath of August 12, 2017. Photo: Eze Amos Tensions ran high at Charlottesville City Council meetings in the aftermath of August 12, 2017. Photo: Eze Amos

I had lived in Charlottesville for 10 years almost to the day before I saw the inside of City Council chambers. I’d paid my gas bill in person once or twice. I think I bought a trash sticker in 2012. But I’d never even been upstairs at City Hall before. If you’d asked me at any point between August 2007 and August 2017, I would not have been able to tell you the mayor’s name.

I’m not sure what I was looking for when I squeezed into the packed chambers that night in August. I didn’t understand how Unite the Right had been allowed to happen to us. I didn’t know how our local government worked, but I needed to know what had gone wrong because surely something had. Things were out of control—cops were dragging people from the room, white supremacists were showing up at public comment. Even without any understanding of municipal government, this was noteworthy content, and like any millennial, I took to social media to tell my friends. And, unexpectedly, people seemed to enjoy reading what amounted to meeting minutes. I have tweeted out a blow-by-blow, real-time account of every City Council meeting since December 2017.

I started attending city government meetings for myself, because I had questions I couldn’t answer. What I found was not a simple explanation. Slowly, the meetings became about the mundane business of governing a city again, and it was clear the violence of the summer of 2017 was a symptom of a disease we have had for a long time—a nasty flare-up of a chronic illness. There is white supremacy deeply entrenched in the most boring parts of our government. We think of that violence as the Nazis who marched in our streets, but that was just the ugly cold sore caused by the virus that reproduces quietly in decisions about school district boundaries and funding allocations and building permits.

As the meetings became less about the spectacle, I was fascinated by the process of government. Decisions made in council chambers are based on decisions made in still more meetings—boards and commissions and work sessions. I was between jobs with time to kill, so I went to another meeting, then another. I realized the real work of governing was happening in open meetings that were open in name only—they were sparsely attended and lightly reported on.

The reporter is, typically, not part of the story. The news should be dispassionate. But we have no dearth of sterile, detached coverage of the events affecting our daily lives. What I’ve found is that we need more than that. Entirely accidentally, I discovered there is a real desire for news with an audience surrogate. For as intimately as it affects our lives, government can be opaque and inaccessible. We want the facts, but the lack of any emotional context makes them hard to grasp. In my coverage of city meetings, I am not just accountable to this community, I am a part of it. I don’t hide my frustration, my sadness, or even my boredom during long hearings on easements or alleyways.

Charlottesville as a community is uniquely civically engaged, but civic engagement is time consuming. Some board meetings are held in the middle of the day, some are held inside the jail, and City Council meetings can last until one in the morning. I never intended for my strange hobby to become a public service, but the combination of having the time and tenacity to sit through dozens of hours of meetings per week and no editorial board asking me to tone down the emotional intensity of my coverage has created a unique public record that I am still shocked to find so many people rely on for their city government news. With this column, my hope is to bring you not just a bi-monthly update about what happened in some dry public meeting you missed, but to make the business of these meetings more relatable, more accessible to you, my neighbors.

My personal style of intensely emotional, tonally conversational coverage cannot and should not replace traditional reporting from our local mainstream press. Those reporters provide an invaluable service. While my coverage may be less comprehensive, I see these forms of media as complementary. Providing people with bite-sized, digestible, relatable coverage makes broader engagement possible. I’ll sit through a full day city budget work session, a six-hour City Council meeting, and days of motions on that statue lawsuit so you don’t have to–although I’d be happy to save you a seat.

Follow Molly Conger’s real-time coverage of city meetings on Twitter @socialistdogmom