McAllen authorizes contract to analyze social media

When city commissioners in McAllen retreat to the private portion of their bi-monthly meetings, they typically return to a mostly empty commission chambers, cast votes on what was discussed in secret with hardly a dispute and adjourn the meeting.

Not on Monday.

“On that one, I don’t feel comfortable at all,” Commissioner Javier Villalobos, an attorney, said of a six-month, $12,000 contract with ZenCity Technologies, a company that contracts with municipalities to analyze social media comments in hopes of identifying trends in discussions about the city.

Despite Villalobos and Mayor Jim Darling voting in opposition, commissioners narrowly approved the contract with ZenCity Technologies at Monday’s city commission meeting.

“To me, it kind of borders on invasion of privacy or spying on our people, our taxpayers, at their expense,” Villalobos said. “I don’t feel comfortable at all with it.”

Darling, also an attorney, agreed, and voted with Villalobos opposing the measure.

“We’ve had 311 all these years and we haven’t analyzed that data,” Darling said after the meeting of the city’s app, where citizens report potholes, outages and other concerns. “Why don’t we start there and analyze the information that people are actually voluntarily giving to us.”

“But we’re not seeing everybody’s comments,” Commissioner Omar Quintanilla said. “And that’s the issue here.”

Commissioner Joaquin “J.J.” Zamora, an attorney as well, argued that social media comments are “in the public domain,” and, therefore, fair game.

“There’s some benefit (when) you’re proactive,” Quintanilla added of monitoring social media comments.

“It’s public knowledge what’s been placed on Facebook,” Commissioner Veronica Whitacre said, though she withheld her vote until the other commissioners announced theirs. Quintanilla and Zamora had voted in favor of the contract; Darling and Villalobos had voted against it, while Commissioners Tania Ramirez and Victor “Seby” Haddad were absent from Monday’s meeting.

“You said no?” Whitacre said to Darling. “I didn’t answer.”

“You didn’t answer?” Darling said.

“Oh, this is a hard one,” Whitacre said, before voting to approve the contract, siding with Quintanilla and Zamora.

It was an unusually tight vote by McAllen city commissioners about a subject that invoked serious concerns about privacy, though the method has been used in cities across the United States and Israel, including seven in Texas: Corinth, Fort Worth, Houston, Lancaster, Pearland, San Antonio and Seguin, according to the company.

Dozens more cities have used the service, and several have submitted testimonials to the company.

“Zencity has been an essential tool in helping us, as a city, better connect with, and serve, our residents,” said Mayor Denny Doyle of Beaverton, Ore., according to a testimonial on the company’s website.

Villalobos wasn’t convinced.

“Why don’t we wait to see what the 311 reports say?” Villalobos said. “Because we haven’t been getting the reports. That’s free.”