A San Mateo County Harbor Commission meeting can resemble a Silicon Valley technology meet-up.
Half the audience points digital cameras around the room. Attendees share tips on streaming video applications. One person provides wireless Internet for the whole room from his smartphone. Everyone in the room realizes that every word spoken is probably being recorded.
While many herald the new age of connectivity, some are less than thrilled that their every utterance will go online for posterity. Consequently, the Harbor Commission has become one among many battlegrounds over the appropriate use of new technological tools for capturing and sharing information.
Perhaps the most striking example came earlier this year when a majority of the Harbor District board voted to end video broadcasts of meetings. As a form of protest, many regular attendees pledged to regularly video the meetings, and they’ve made it a point to mock some harbor commissioners for being stuck in the 20th century.
That meeting set the course for other squabbles of techies versus luddites. Critics have lambasted the district for failing to disclose board members’ emails and running an outdated website. An August report on installing WiFi routers at Pillar Point Harbor also became a target of ridicule after it was revealed that it totaled more than 1,100 pages. The routers were never installed.
And earlier this month the district’s legal counsel studied whether Commissioner Sabrina Brennan had violated rules by posting her email address and social media links on the Harbor District Web page. Commissioner William Holsinger alleged the hyperlinks were a misuse of public resources because they brought visitors to Brennan’s social media pages where she detailed her political views. The Harbor District’s attorney could find no violations, but Holsinger pressed the point.
“I’m concerned by the level of scholarship by our legal counsel,” said Holsinger, himself a practicing attorney. “By maintaining these links, the district is tacitly approving the information to which the individual is being directed.”
People in the audience cast the review as a “witch hunt” designed to stifle Brennan.
“First you did away with videos so people can watch this, and now you’re going after Sabrina who just put up her email addresses out there,” said Bill Kehoe, a member of the Midcoast Community Council. “We’re a stone’s throw from Silicon Valley and we’re going back to 1980s technology. … It’s not the way to conduct business.”
Recent studies have noted that government officials are often reluctant to bring on better information technology because doing so can open them up to more public scrutiny. A 2003 article “Should the Public Meeting Enter the Information Age?” concludes that government agencies need a new handbook similar to “Robert’s Rules of Order” for how electronic tools should be incorporated into public meetings.
The irony, the study noted, was that government agencies are quick to adopt the latest technology for public surveillance.
But studies do suggest that readily available meeting recordings help promote government transparency. Video-recording was included as one of the eight main components to grade the level of transparency in a public body, according to a 2010 framework provided by Rutgers University and the University of Kansas. Other components scored in the study included the advance notice of posted agendas and speed that minutes became available, and whether public servants face any penalty if they violate open-meeting laws.
The report noted that California public officials faced no penalties for open-meeting violations, unless the transgression amounted to a criminal offense.