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Saturday, May 24, 2003


A Better, Cheaper Technological Solution to Open Government

Governor Davis is proposing to save the state of California $9.3 million per year by eliminating the Brown Act mandate under which local governments and agencies must post their agendas. According to California law, the state government cannot impose "unfunded mandates" upon local governments. That prevents the state from effectively forcing local governments to raise taxes to pay for state regulations.

Not surprisingly, Davis' plan has aroused intense controversy and opposition from advocates of open government.

So here's my modest proposal:

California should establish a statewide web site wherein all local governments and agencies can publish their agendas. They would still be mandated by the state to do so, with the same advance notice timelines as presently exist. But the cost of satisfying the mandate would drop to near zero.

The state web site would provide citizens with a single, easily accessible, indexed source of information on meeting agendas. Additionally, citizens would be able to "subscribe" to agendas for a particular local government or agency, so that those agendas would be automatically emailed to subscribers as soon as they were posted.

This basic concept would be expanded to include minutes of meetings, as well as all legal notices that were previously required to be published in newspapers of record. Again, citizens would be able to easily view the minutes and the legal notices on-line, as well as subscribe to them by email.

This concept can be still further expanded to include all legal notices which individuals and organizations and business are presently required to publish in newspapers of record. Examples include DBA's and development proposals and EIRs and initiative measures. Citizens could obtain email subscriptions to such notices, broken down by category and/or locality.

This proposal would greatly increase accessibility to the above information, far beyond the present physical posting and print-publishing requirements. Most Californians these days have access to the Internet, and could check a centrally maintained web site at least as easily as they can check a newspaper or travel to meeting location where an agenda or legal notice is posted on paper. The email subscription capability will assure interested citizens that they will never miss seeing an agenda, especially in the case of a special meeting. Even for the increasingly rare instances where a citizen does not have personal Internet access, that individual can always go to a public library to obtain the information.

The cost to the state of California for setting up a central web site would consist of a one-time design expense of between $100,000 and $1,000,000. Once set up, the web site would function automatically. The only on-going costs would be for bandwidth and data storage (at most a few thousand dollars per month). This is a pittance compared to the annual $9.3 million expense of the current state mandate.

There are many ancillary advantages. Each local government or agency would be given a password that would allow it to post information (via a web form) to its portion of the web site. Postings would be automatically time-stamped, so there'd be no dispute as to whether a deadline had been met for proper advance notice. All postings would be automatically archived on the web site, and past agendas and minutes and legal notices could be accessed based on either date or content (with the assistance of a localized search engine).

In addition to saving the state of California over $9 million per year in mandated expenditures, local governments and agencies throughout California would save tens or hundreds of millions of dollars per year for legal notices that previously had to be published in newspapers. Tens or hundreds of millions of dollars of annual savings by businesses and individuals would also be realized.

The only losers would be print newspapers, which would no longer reap this non-productive windfall of revenue. For everyone else it is a win-win proposition.

This will make the government more open to more citizens at greatly reduced cost, by utilizing modern technology.

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