Other than a root canal or a trip to the proctologist, there may be no more painful experience than sitting through a San Diego City Council meeting waiting for a particular agenda item of interest. Even on television, council meetings can drone on for hours-not an effective way to entice a skeptical public into the arena of political debate, much less keep viewers awake.
But in the coming months, the cordial folks at CityTV Channel 24-the C-Span of city politics-will unveil a new service proven popular in other cities and counties that will allow computer users to select and view specific segments of archived City Council meetings 24/7 at the click of a mouse.
The system, devised by a San Francisco company that specializes in so-called streaming video, will include a searchable index, meaning that if you want to determine how many times the City Council deliberates about the budget or declares National Widget Day, those answers will be available.
Already a hit in such cities as Sacramento, El Segundo, Cerritos, Long Beach and the Bay Area city of Brentwood, the service will be available via the city's website (www.sandiego.gov) as soon as the software is tested and perfected, said Marc Jaffe, the city's cable office program manager.
"We hope the ease of use will generate more interest in council meetings," Jaffe said. "It's an exciting project, and we'll be the first city to have this done in-house."
While other cities contract with Granicus, the San Francisco firm synonymous with web streaming for government agencies, Jaffe said San Diego will save money by maintaining its own terabyte of archive storage. A terabyte is equivalent to one trillion bytes of raw data, enough to fill 650,000 floppy disks or about one-tenth of the entire collection in the Library of Congress.
"When we were contracting out our web streaming-we did this for one year before bringing it in-house-we were paying around $3,000 a month," Jaffe said. "I expect that we will be saving money within the first year of web-archiving use."
For a few years, the city has provided live web streaming of council and various other important committee meetings, but that system, while an improvement, runs much like a TV program without TIVO-no ability to fast forward or replay, and only sporadic reruns.
With the new service, computer users will be at the commands. A viewing screen will be upgraded with a "Skip to" pull-down roster listing in order each agenda item. A simple click on an item advances the video to the desired discussion. Users will also be able to search for specific issues of interest, using words found in the title of agenda items. Type in "police," for example, and a list of segments covering police deliberations will appear for your viewing pleasure.
Karen Diaz, the city clerk of Brentwood, a small town east of San Francisco, said both city workers and the public are raving about the new accessibility-particularly in a town with no cable access. "We've had positive response from both our staff members and the community, because right now it's the only means we have to put our meetings out live," Diaz told CityBeat. "We don't have any means for cable transmission at this time. This is our only hook-up to the public for our meetings."
The Brentwood website has experienced a "significant" rise in the number of visitors since the introduction of the archive-on-demand in early 2002, she said. "And our staff likes it, too," Diaz added, "because they can go back and view the meeting and get exactly the feel for what was being said and what the council's direction was."
The local city clerk's office will also benefit, Diaz said, by a reduction in requests for meeting transcripts and cassette-tape reproductions, both time-consuming and costly. "Under this program, you'd just burn it to a CD, or better yet, actually e-mail it to someone directly," she said. "It's kind of nice."
San Diego Councilmember Donna Frye, the city's reigning advocate for public participation in local government, praised the new system when alerted to it by CityBeat. "Wow, that is way cool. I like that," she said. "In the last couple years, I bet there's been more people watching the council meetings than there used to be, because I tell you, I sure run into people all the time who say, "Oh yeah, I watch those meetings. I watch them Saturday mornings when they're rerun.'"
But with the new offering, viewers won't need to wait for reruns.
"It's great, because it gets the public more involved in what's going on," said Brentwood's Diaz. "Even if you don't have time to come down to the council meetings because of kids or whatever, you can at least check on issues you care about."
Perhaps on the horizon: Live interaction via the computer during council meetings. "Oh, I'm sure we'll get there," Diaz said.