Los Banos California - What This Town Needs:
A Paperless Agenda and Salient City Government & Council Documents Available Online
is the currency of democracy
What this town needs is an Online Paperless Agenda And More
If information is the currency of democracy then many of the citizens of Los Banos are destitute.
In my travels about Los Banos I hear a great deal of talk about how our citizens should become involved in their community and their government. Sadly in many cases it is just that... TALK. Getting involved in government, (if only to voice an informed opinion that will be taken seriously), requires a commodity that seems to be rare as hen's teeth in Los Banos - that commodity is detailed timely information.
Involvement , Cynical Views And Apathy
It is my personal opinion that one reason that our citizens do not become involved in their community is because they really know very little about what government is doing. Whether they are kept in the dark or choose to be in the dark themselves is arguable, but Los Banos residents trust strangers to spend their money, raise their taxes, and direct their city in a way that will, it is hoped, be best for everyone.
Sadly, these same people often complain mightily that the city is doing wrong things in planning, spending their money, and other government functions. Why is this? In many cases it is because our residents simply do not know what is happening at city hall and when they do become aware of what government leaders are doing, the votes have already been counted and it is too late to so much as voice their opinions and make a difference.
THAT is a perfect recipe for cynicism and apathy.
This information catch 22 could be mitigated to some degree by providing the public with as much timely documentation as is legally possible. Being fully informed, citizens would have a far better opportunity to intelligently express themselves in a salient and timely manner and this involvement opportunity would result in less public apathy and vitriol. Heck, it might even make citizens more likely to help out by volunteering in areas where they otherwise would not bother. It certainly would give them less basis to complain.
Putting city documents online, starting with the city council packet and ancillary documentation would be an excellent way to begin accomplishing a positive change by allowing citizens to become more fully informed and empowered to make their views heard.
The law requires that the folks at city hall post an 'agenda' before each council meeting. This agenda delineates what the scope of the next Redevelopment Agency / City Council meeting will cover but it does so in what I opine are only the vaguest of terms. There is little meat contained in this few page document and it never has any in depth information. Many times this skeleton is posted in a timely manner on the City website in PDF format but I do not believe that is a requirement of the law and timely posting certainly is not 100 percent consistent.
Thanks to the bare bones, and some have said cryptic outline provided in the few page agenda, people may not even realize they SHOULD be looking more deeply at some of the specific items contained therein. Some items on these agendas are clearly not understood by the average person in their agendized form. Detail is needed and this is where the Council Packet comes in.
Detail Is Key
Posting the City Council meeting agenda is to be commended but in a free and open republic it is simply not enough. For every page that the public sees of the agenda there is another document that contains one hundred pages or more of ancillary and explanatory documentation that most of the public never sees. This is the City Council Packet. The members of our city council are given this multi hundred page binder full of documents prior to every city council meeting. This council member document set includes DETAILS about what is being so poorly described in the gaunt agenda, showing such things as the exact text of proposed laws and ordinances, maps, historical data, and other salient information. The packet while not perfect generally gives the depth and detail that one needs to form rational opinions or ask intelligent questions about items on the agenda.
The multi hundred page council packet is also supposed to be made available to the public and it is, but it is costly and it is inconvenient to obtain, particularly for our commuters.
Convenience, Costs, And Republics
To obtain the current council packet one must schedule the time to visit to city hall wait in line, pay a per page charge to the staff at the front desk, and wait for them to copy it. You are also asked for your name and address 'for a receipt' that they have to fill out. The whole process is inconvenient and costs too much.
While the per page charge is doable for most of us if you only want a few pages, it might not be quite so easy for those on fixed incomes. In addition if you want to obtain the entire packet you will need quite a few dollars two times each month. This unnecessary cost to become informed about what your government is up to really adds up over the course of a year. It's also wrong.
Having to pay money in order to know what your government is doing is flatly unacceptable in a republic where information can be passed at the speed of light for pennies on the internet.
To force people to PAY to see what is being done, or to force them to make an inconvenient (and for commuters an impossible) trip downtown is to my mind flat out wrong. We heard a lot of promises about open government in the last election, well this is one place that we could start truly seeing Los Banos government become more open and some campaign promises being actually and inexpensively fulfilled.
Time For An Online Information Mandate
I would like to publicly go on record as advocating that our City Council pass a resolution delineating a law or ordinance which MANDATES that all newly generated city documentation be put online by a certain time (say a year or so) AND that all of the legally allowable portions of the packets for City Council, RDA, Planing, School Board and other commissions and elected or decision making bodies be put online immediately.
There are a ton of benefits to an online government. The most obvious one, and the one I have beat the drum for above is simply one of doing what is right by the public. It is the public's right to be informed - and not at the convenience of their government but at the convenience of the citizens that the government is supposed to be serving. Remember we are ostensibly supposed to BE the government, those at city hall are simply our representatives.
Though I am not a "green fanatic" by any measure - I am a person that despises waste. Putting documents into electronic form and putting them online for people, and for the members of the press and the city government that want this form of information dissemination will go far in eliminating tangible waste products.
City Hall goes through an enormous amount of paper each week. If City Staff has has to print an entire ream of paper for every person that sits on the dais (for city council alone) every two weeks that is 2 full cases of paper per month. Add to that the paper packets that are given to press, to city staff, and to others and this waste adds up to be quite a mountain of needless paper in our landfill. In addition our landfill (which is another sore point) gets inundated with expended toner cartridges, cardboard boxes, worn out binders, and eventually the hulks of worn out printers which all will find their way to Los Banos 'dwindling' Billy Wright dump.
Not only is it a waste to throw out hundreds of pounds of paper per month in our limited landfill but the waste of money via direct financial costs are also high. Staples Office Supply charges 35 to 50 dollars per case of blank paper. Using Staples as a baseline, paper alone must cost about 840 to 1200 dollars per year just for council packets! These funds could be be better put toward the Police GAIT unit or other city staff jobs. Remember that cost is just for blank paper. I have no idea what model of printer is used at city hall but anyone who has recently bought toner can tell you that those cartridges are not cheap. Many run anywhere from 30 to 300 dollars per change. Many government agencies have agreements for maintenance contracts where there is a per page charge made on the printers they use.. more potential costs.
The cost of putting this stuff online by comparison has to be minuscule. I am sure that the folks at city hall have long since given up on manual typewriters and so the documents are already in electronic form. The cost of putting such documents online then comes down to little more than server space and a little bit of time for a person to upload it once or twice per week. It would certainly be cheaper than printing it all. When was the last time you bought software that had a printed manual? Even big business is going to electronic format documentation because it is so cheap to do.
An Offer To The City From OurLosBanos.com
In fact I am such a believer in the rectitude of putting the packets online and in my belief that the costs of labor and time will be so small for such a large reward that I got up in front of the City Council at their last meeting and stated that I would be willing to help out in any way I could with this process.
If City Hall does not have the time, personnel, or server space to put the council packets online I will be happy to host the current quarter's council documents here on OurLosBanos.com as a free service to the people of this town and to our council. City hall has but to send me these documents and I will upload them and link them from the main page of OurLosBanos.com. Further, if for some legal reason City Hall is unable to allow me to privately host such items for them, I would be willing to donate my own time to putting together at my cost (server space costs and domain and registration) a small and very simply done website that is owned by the city. I would upload to it anything they sent me.
Not JUST Paperless - Give People The Choice
I do need to make a small detour here and publicly note that I do not want to see paper copies mandated out of existence for those who want them. Corey Pride at the Los Banos Enterprise makes a great case for the fact that he needs paper to do his job properly, and I am sure there might be members of the government now or in the future who really prefer to hold a paper packet in their hands. I am all for allowing them to have that option if they so choose. In addition there are members of the public that may not have computers or the Internet and may need to have paper format documents. These should be made available free of charge for the asking.
Having said that however I do believe that the vast majority of people who are going to want to be involved or gain greater understanding of their government as well as the huge percentage of our town that commutes and simply can not obtain the packets easily would benefit greatly from having detailed paperless documents available.
It Just Makes Sense
This "paperless agenda ordinance" would save our landfill a great deal of pressure, it would save the taxpayers money, it would be better for the environment, it would be far more convenient, and most importantly putting these documents online would give our citizens an opportunity to be less cynical and more involved in THEIR government and THEIR city.
In closing I would like to see the first quarter of 2008 be one where this council puts into place a law MANDATING that a timely upload of all packets and documentation concerning meeting and agenda items pertaining to the City Council, RDA, Planing Commission, School Board and other boards, commissions and elected or decision making bodies. Further I'd like to see them study the idea of putting all other newly generated publicly available records and documentation online as well.
Jefferson called information the currency of Democracy. It's time to give our citizens a raise.
Copyright © 2007 by Our Los Banos and Memorable Places Web Design This page last updated on: January 1, 2008
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