By Colin Blake
Come Nov. 3 San Francisco voters will have the option to approve Proposition E, which aims to bring more participation to the political process by live streaming all public government meetings, allowing for digital and pre-recorded comment so constituents can engage in the political process remotely.
“With this, we are able to bring more government meetings to more people,” said David Lee, the San Francisco State political science professor whose students, in conjunction with himself, wrote the proposition.
Proposition E, also known as The Sunshine and Open Government Act, was added to the ballot after the application received nearly 17,000 signatures; Only 9,000 were required
Currently, San Francisco holds around 2,000 public meetings a year that are hosted by nearly 120 individual committees or boards. However, at a cost of $3.4 million to run SFGovTV.com and traditional tv broadcasting, San Francisco manages to cover the actions of only 33 of the committees and boards.
According to Lee, the meetings that are not shown control $6 billion of the city’s $9 billion budget.
Implementation of Prop E’s internet live streaming would have an initial start up cost of $1.7 million and an annual operating cost of $750,000, according to a report from the city controller. With that cost, full, translated coverage of government meetings would be possible.
“We think the cost will actually be much less because technology is constantly improving,” Lee said.
Prop E, beside the ability to view government meetings, would allow the public to comment via recorded video or audio messages. These comments would need to be submitted 48-hours in advance. In order to submit comment, residents would need to create an account that would confirm residency and provide attribution.
Convening governing bodies would retain the power to determine how long the comment section is – so long as it is not less than 30 minutes – the duration of the comments and the ability to screen comments for profanity and threats.
“This legislation has been formulated to afford the board or committee the most flexibility in administering this technology,” Lee said.
However, committees and boards would be bound by time-certain agenda items. This means items on meetings outline start as advertised. Also, if 50 or more persons request an item be moved to a specific time slot at least 48-hours before, the policy body must abide if possible.
“It’s a pretty simple idea,” said Lee. “If you come to a board meeting for particular item, it starts on time.”
Formal opposition to Prop E is condensed into the group Smart Open Government SF. Pledges of support for the group come from the SF Bicycle Coalition, San Francisco Democratic Party, President of the Board of Supervisors London Breed and the San Francisco Labor Council just to name a few.
Requests for comment from Smart Open Government SF have not been returned.
However, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, through its communications director Chris Cassidy, did make a comment.
“We aren’t heavily involved in the campaign,” Cassidy said.
Smart Open Government SF, through their webpage, contends that “Proposition E is billed as a ‘good government’ measure. In fact, it is not. Under the guise of good government, this proposal will reduce participation of San Franciscans in the policies that affect us.”
San Francisco Tech Dems is also listed as a supporter of Smart Open Government SF. Request for comment from its chief of policy, Rebecca Lee, were not returned.
David Maass is an investigative researcher for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. EFF is a nonprofit that advocates for and defends civil liberties in the digital age. Maass and EFF have taken the position of supporting Prop E.
“This is a pretty ambitious project,” Maass said. “But if 10 teenagers can organize a video chat over their cell phones, government should be able to do this.”
While Lee contends that only San Francisco residents will be able to comment during meetings, Maass said more residents have a legitimate interest in San Francisco politics and should be involved.
“What if you have someone who works 60-hour weeks here?” Maass said. “They have a vested interest in how the city deals with policy because it affects them too.”
Maass also said expert testimony could be hindered if non-residents could not comment.
“Sometimes an expert on subject matter may be in Oakland or Huston,” Maass said. “The experts and advocates don’t always live in the area.”
Overall, this legislation would be a boon to keeping government transparent and accountable because more eyes on government is always better, according to Maass. However, some elements will need alteration if approved.
“The time table is a little ambitious,” Maass said. “The board of supervisors should, and probably will, vote to increase the time required to implement this.”
If the proposition passes, the city will have six months to begin implementing the live streaming network and the policy-body-specific links to view the feeds. A simple majority vote is required for passage.
“What we are trying to do here is for the people, not the politicians,” Lee said. “If this passes, this is designed to give the average citizen the power to see their government.”