Friday, July 10, 2009

More on Salem’s Transparency

Salem City Hall plaque

Last night, as I mentioned before, there was a meeting of the City Council’s Subcommittee on Ordinances, Licenses and Legal Affairs, on their proposed changes to Salem’s Sunshine Ordinance.

I was at the meeting, but instead of the long speech in defense of transparency I’d expected to make, I was reminded of just how hard it is to expose the city’s proceedings to the public, both for the logistics and for the constant balancing that has to be done between all the interests involved. 

During the meeting, the subject of SATV came up, and I was asked what SATV was doing to make public meetings available on line (not just over the air.)

The unfortunate answer:  We aren’t doing it right now.  We haven’t been able to get the money and the resources together.

Few realize just how expensive it is to provide storage and bandwidth for meetings.  The questions come in a flood:  How many meetings?  How many years of meetings?  Which meetings?  Low-res or high-res?  Bitrate?  How many people would watch?  How do we get a transcript?  Do we store audio, too? 

The IT staff of SATV is one person.  The IT staff of the city (Joanne Rust’s) department is four, or was when I worked there over 25 years ago.

OK, that means we buy a service.  Last year, Mrs. Rust herself came to SATV with a idea of using the city’s web provider, Virtual Town Hall, LLC.  I liked the idea but it didn’t go anywhere at the time.  Budget concerns.


I’ve recorded meetings of the Salem Commission on Disabilities for 10 years.  That much I’ve said, on numerous occasions.  But I’ve not told the blog exactly how I do it.  This is how a meeting goes for me, in addition to the normal business I have as a commission member.

I take out the camera, a personal hard drive, audio mixer, microphone, and our Firestore, a device that records to a hard drive from a camera, and setup at SATV’s conference room, where we meet.  Fortunately, it’s only down the hall.

I run over to Dunk’s to get a coffee, start the Firestore recording and we begin a meeting which is usually 90 minutes long, most months.  (If we have a guest, it can be 2 hours.)

Then I pack up.  I take the Firestore and my hard drive over to one of our Macs and prepare the meeting for air.  The video is edited only to add titles and a graphic and to remove extraneous video I might have before and after the meeting itself.  (Andy LaPointe wanted us to have theme music for our meetings.  And we do.)

During the production process, there are numerous waits for the video to be encoded or graphics to be completed, so it can take some time.  After waiting, the video is burned to a DVD and also transferred to SATV’s video server through our internal network.  At the same time, I make an MP3 copy of the meeting audio.

That process takes me at least two hours and sometimes three.

When I get home, I’m not done.  I volunteered to do the minutes.  I don’t have fun doing it, due to my hearing impairment, but I volunteered or it wouldn’t get done.  I use DVD playing software on my PC and transcribe it to my blog, posting an unofficial copy.  A copy is saved to Word and forwarded to Andy LaPointe, who reviews it and sends it to Tom Watkins, who posts it on

That can be a three or four hour process, which I never do the night of the meeting;  it’s too much, especially if I want to do it right.  I try to get the minutes out 5-7 days after the meeting.

The DVD’s are stored at my house and the audio files are stored on a server I maintain at home. 

Yes, you heard me right.

The physical DVD’s should be stored at City Hall or wherever is deemed safe (Joanne Rust would know).  But I’ve been doing this as a personal project for the 10 years and have had minimal city support other than what the Commission gives me.

Fortunately, the costs of recording video have dramatically dropped so that it costs me very little.

I’ve avoided asking for budget items out of the Commission’s budget because it is very small and what we do get often needs to be put to use for more important uses (such as Andy needing a piece of Braille equipment to conduct his business as a member.)

This is the story of the city’s transparency effort writ small.  The City Clerk’s office runs behind on minutes (18 months behind on some meetings) because they are short of staff.  We should not be surprised that the subcommittee wanted to lengthen the deadline for submitting minutes.

“Work more with Less”, people say.  “Union hacks!” say others.  But if you haven’t got the people or the money—remember, government is bad, starve it!—little wonder that the city can’t meet the terms of the ordinance it now has.

From the tone of last night, I thought the city was trying to keep up with the Internet (I’m surprised no one’s asked the mayor to be on Twitter!) but falling behind for lack of people and money. 

Web 2.0 does not write itself and this great transparent world promised to us will not happen.  It may take time, people and that scary prospect, money, to fulfill itself.