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Live Action: A Measure to Stream Public Meetings Makes the Ballot 

Wednesday, Jul 15 2015

San Franciscans may soon be able to comment on public meetings from the comfort of their couches. In November, the city will vote on a ballot measure that requires live-streaming of public meetings, creates a system to allow public testimony via the internet, and lets people request that specific agenda items be heard at a predetermined time.

"At the real root of all of this is large segments of our community and population are not participating in the decisions that affect their ability to live in San Francisco," says David Lee, a political science professor at San Francisco State University and president of San Franciscans for Open Government. Lee assigned his 200-student American politics class the project that later morphed into the ballot measure. It's considered the first of its kind in a major American city.

Lee argues that lengthy public meetings are often held at times inconvenient for working people. "[San Franciscans] are working, or going to school, and they can't take the time off to appear in person. People want to survive and stay in San Francisco, and they should stay in San Francisco," Lee says.

Lawyers parlayed the students' proposal into legislative language, while the students spearheaded a grassroots campaign to educate voters about the live-streaming measure.

For the moment, the measure seems like a shoo-in, although earlier this month the Chronicle alluded to unnamed city officials who are likely to grumble about the logistics and expense of implementing a live-streaming ordinance.

The cost, however, is negligible. The Cube, a private firm that specializes in broadcasting live events, estimated live-streaming would cost $160,000 to $300,000 annually — a fraction of the $3.4 million the city spends each year to broadcast public meetings on television. (The city's own legislative analysis estimate isn't yet available.) And supporters say anti-streaming arguments are toothless in light of its potential for increased engagement.

Not everybody is convinced. Cynthia Crews, vice chair of the Local Agency Formation Commission and a member of the League of Pissed Off Voters, calls the measure "well-intentioned" but says the city should prioritize making government accessible to everyone before privileging convenience for some. She cites the 100,000 San Franciscans who lack easy internet access.

"The legislation brings up good points about committee and commission meetings being difficult to attend for those with children and work commitments. Those issues should be addressed," Crews says. "My concern with video testimony and set agenda times is unintended consequences. Meeting topics would have to be continued or public comment would be abbreviated if the agenda had multiple set agenda items."

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Max A. Cherney


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