It’s a conversation I’ve seen happen repeatedly: An issue arises in St. Paul that many of us care about and it gets to the point where public comment is taken at a city committee or the City Council. Then some women who have voiced support or concerns, depending on the issue, say they will stop short of sending in formal comments by email. Why? Because the city asks for your address for the public record.
Why does the city need your address? I seriously doubt the city verifies them; that would be staff intensive. I understand the legitimate desire to know if a commenter is a resident or not, and if so, basically where the person lives, whether by neighborhood or ward. But why does the city need to know – and publish – the home address of a resident who wishes to comment on a public issue? If you testify in person before the Council, you have been asked to state your address, which is shown on video of the meetings. If you email your comments, you’ll usually be asked for your address if it isn’t included, and that will usually be posted in the agenda packet for that business item for all to see.
There are many understandable reasons why women especially are reluctant to make their residences known publicly, including harassment, stalking, and abuse. I see smart, engaged women retreat from making their voices heard in the city’s official processes because of this practice that I would bet disproportionately silences women. I’m guessing this might also be a barrier for other residents based on immigration status or other factors as well.
The good news is that our new St. Paul City Council President, Amy Brendmoen, has indicated that she is already discussing the issue with staff and working on changes. Hopefully those changes are flexible enough so those I know who don’t trust manual human redaction of home addresses from emailed comments can feel secure in submitting written comments on public issues in their city without risking their personal safety. There shouldn’t have to be a choice between those two.
Of course, commenting on civic issues in St. Paul is hardly the only arena where policies or practices might discourage participation. This very site has an editorial policy that calls for posts to be published “using a real full name, not a pseudonym, except with express permission of the streets.mn Editor in Chief or Board Chair.” I’ve seen this policy discourage at least one woman I know of from writing for the site when a post submitted with a first name and a last initial wouldn’t do. It’s likely there are more who never even start a draft post.
If streets.mn is serious about its mission to “expand and enhance the conversation about transportation and land use,” perhaps 2018 should be a year where the board experiments with allowing last initials in place of full surnames as the default option. What’s the real risk? If we’re serious about truly expanding conversations and engaging more people across cities and online, we need to acknowledge the different barriers some might face in doing so and work to make processes more accommodating.