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July 16th, 2010
Letter to the editor: How to gain more government transparency

To the editor:

Many citizens would like to see more transparency in local government. Here are ten example ideas to get the conversation going:

1)  Post a record of votes (of city council meetings) online within 24 hours;

2)  Provide monthly or quarterly reports posted online from pertinent departments (such as planning, police, fire, CIP, financial, transportation, utilities, and others);

3)  Running tabulation (downloadable in spreadsheet format) of votes cast from city council meetings;

4)  Post downloadable video of city council (and any others that meet in the City Hall chamber) meetings within 48 hours;

5)  Implement a comprehensive ideas program where city employees, elected leaders, and other members of the community can contribute ideas and track their status online;

6)  Host online discussion forums where citizens can bring up issues and true dialog takes place (look at “Localocracy” of Amherst, MA, “Colorado Smart Community” and “Front Porch Forum” as examples);

7)  Expand online options for conducting business with the city;

8)  Provide capability for citizens to know when items have been added, deleted, or modified at the city website;

9)  Utilize “Open311” (or other suitable) technologies to report and track non-emergency issues in public spaces;

10)  Expand online calendar of events and meetings.

We may see some candidates for mayor and city council talk about their desire to improve transparency. I hope they talk specifics instead of just platitudes!

Steve Harvey
San Marcos

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149 thoughts on “Letter to the editor: How to gain more government transparency

  1. Someone had suggested to me, tying into #4, is to have a DVD copy of City Council meetings available for loan from the library.

  2. Mr. Harvey,
    I think your suggestions are an excellent start. I have a few other items that I would like to see added to that list.

    1. Truth in Agenda. All agenda items should be worded so that the average citizen can understand the agenda item. Examples. No more discuss zoning changes for lots 34 and 35 of the blah, blah survey. Instead, discuss changing the zoning of 322 Jones street from a single house to an apartment building. No more discuss proposed construction of an interceptor sewer line from Lift Station #2 to South of the San Marcos River. Instead, discuss the building of a 20 million dollar sewer line from the North LBJ/Craddock intersection to the proposed new subdivision on Lime Kiln Road. No more discuss economic incentives. Instead, discuss paying the developer of a new subdivision 5 miles out on Hunter Road. The proposal is to pay the developer 20 million dollars to build streets, etc. The name of the developer is XYZ company which is owned by Huey, Dewey and Louie of Austin, Texas. None of the investors of this project live in or around San Marcos.

    2. All executive sessions are to titled in such a manner that the average citizen can understand the agenda item. Example, No more adjourn to executive session to discuss possible litigation. Instead, Council will meet in executive session (closed to the public) to discuss possible litigation regarding the allegation of a City Marshall acting in a discriminatory manner towards students. The incident took place on June 1st, 2010 and several students have hired an attorney. The city attorney has been in contact with the students attorney and the council plans to discuss a possible settlement or to instruct the city attorney to hire outside council to oppose the lawsuit. At the end of the executive session the council will vote on any action the city plans to take in this matter.

    3. No more semi-secret meetings on buses, in restaurant back rooms, etc… The council will meet in a conspicuous public place where there is adequate room for citizens and the press. No more meetings held at the expense of an individual or business that has or expects to have business before the Council.

    4. All public notices of council meetings to be posted in the same manner. No more hiding the postings in obscure web places and no more not notifying the press.

    5. The City will establish the office of an Open Meetings officer who will make every attempt to inform the citizens of issues scheduled for Council meetings. The Open Meeting officer will be empowered to notify the council when he or she suspects that an action by the council is less than clear and has not been properly communicated to the public. The Open meetings officer will be hired by an independent committee appointed by the Council. The Open Meeting officer can only be disciplined and or terminated by the Open Meetings Committee. The Open Meetings officer will report on a regular time frame to the Open Meetings Committee regarding the success and failure of moving the City away from a culture of secrecy to a culture of openness and transparency.

    It’s a start.
    Charles Sims

  3. Good suggestions, Charles and Steve–albeit some of Steve’s might actually increase tie distance–and thereby the tie of responsibility–between average voters and their government.

    How about we just stand the candidates up and ask them actual questions, rather than softballs like, “How do you feel about City/neighborhood relations?” or What is your stance on economic development.” Let us simply check out their willingness to stand up for and explain their positions and their votes AT THE DAIS, IN FRONT OF THE PUBLIC! The NEED for secrecy and “diffused decision-making in government is in reality very low and very occasional, except in the minds of people who fear saying what they mean and letting people watch them act. Sunshine is still the best disinfectant.

    Who cares about the discussions getting either long or vigorous, or people’s changing their minds when presented a better argument, except for weenies and scoundrels, who don’t belong there to begin with?

  4. I’d like to add, to Mr. Sims’s #1 and #2, that each time a subject returns to a council agenda, it should be described the same way it was described the last time. No more discussing an item one week, getting a lot of pushback from the public and then trying to sneak it in a few weeks later, under a different heading.

  5. Ted, that should be really easy to do. The Mayor directs and directs the making of agendas. Make it an “if you want to be up there” deal-breaker. No time is too soon to serve notice, sez I, and I don’t believe opposition could gain much traction. Then again, it is what they DO that tells the tale, not their “public persona” (Okay, BRAND, if you insist.)

  6. Thank you Steve Harvey for introducing increased transparency and consensus building ideas for the City of San Marcos operations. Some people would argue government transparency and consensus slows the development process, but I would put forth it allows for true public engagement and a better decision process for a sustainable, livable community. I look forward to our public representatives embracing these ideas and see them through to implementation as standard operating procedures.

  7. Bill, you are correct. When we are living with the results of these decisions (positive or negative) in 10-20 years, are we going to be saying “I really love this development, but I wish we had gotten it built a couple of months sooner?”

  8. Steve,

    Very glad to see you mentioned our platform as a way to increase government transparency. You can now recommend your community on our homepage, if there is enough interest and enough recommendations, we’d be happy to talk to your local government or local newspaper about setting up a Localocracy.

    Thanks for the mention,

    Conor White-Sullivan,
    CEO/CoFounder
    Localocracy

  9. Great comments here demonstrate the benefits from real dialog in our community. These initial and subsequent ideas represent a good start. Now, if we can get our current and future city leaders to embrace transparency instead of giving it “lip service,” that will be a wonderful step forward for all involved.

    Regarding semi-secret meetings, can you believe the federal lawsuit from 17 elected officials and four cities (including Pflugerville) here in Texas? As noted in the Austin American Statesman, “the plaintiffs claim the Texas Open Meetings Act violates their First Amendment rights to free speech.” I really like our Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s strong response, which includes the following:

    “The First Amendment protects citizens against government oppression – not government against citizen oversight. Open government laws are based on the same premise: that public officials work for the people.”

  10. Agenda for this weeks council meeting.

    The Council will also hold an executive session to discuss vacancies in the city manager and city clerk posts and discuss possible incentives for economic development proposals.

    There is absolutely no reason why they vacancies in the city manager and city clerk can not be discussed in public. There is no reason why the discussion of economic development can not be discussed in public. At least let us know they type of economic development incentives that are being discussed. After all, it is our money you are spending.

    This would be a good time for a couple of council persons to gut up and refuse to participate in a secret meeting.

  11. “Regarding semi-secret meetings, can you believe the federal lawsuit from 17 elected officials and four cities (including Pflugerville) here in Texas? As noted in the Austin American Statesman, ‘the plaintiffs claim the Texas Open Meetings Act violates their First Amendment rights to free speech.’ ”

    There is definitely a problem here,

    both in the 17 politicians that think they have a leg to stand on,

    and also behind those regular closed door proceedings right here in San Marcos, where any and every topic is discussed,

    according to the creative way in which it is labeled.

  12. Over at the “Texas Transparency” website, I read that our own Texas Comptroller, Susan Combs, “recommends that all local governments implement financial transparency by posting three key financial documents online:

    1. the annual budget,
    2. the annual financial report, and
    3. the check register.”

    I believe the City of San Marcos should adopt this step towards financial transparency.

  13. A July 12th COSM press release says, “Revenues remain $201,371 below budgeted projections for this point in the fiscal year.” City staff provides monthly financial reports to the Mayor and City Council. Most of this information could easily be made viewable online for all to see.

    The late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis stated, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” And, Blair Horner, a leading advocate for government transparency, notes the following:

    “An ignorant citizenry is easily manipulated by powerful special interests that seek to manipulate public opinion based on emotional, poll-tested, reactions, since there is no real way for voters to check the facts. Secrecy also creates a breeding ground for corruption; openness is an important part of ensuring that governmental officials are acting in the best interests of the public.”

    We, the people of San Marcos, want more transparency (and accountability) from our elected and other city leaders.

    “I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.” – Thomas Jefferson

  14. Ouch! You guys are tearing up the bullseye! Charlie, Steve, Bill and the others who “just can’t understand” what a secretive business and what a lottery effective government should be. Do you not believe in the power of money and the power of power in a proper democratic republic? Me either. Guess I am either crazy, an outright heathen, or both.

    Thank you folks–a growing number, I hope–and NS from the bottom of my heart. I have been convinced in the last few weeks that I could smell fresh air rising somewhere near. It is lovely and healing.

  15. Whoops! Forgot! Charles, allow me to preview the instruction surely coming at you from several directions, so you don’t expire in bated-breath anticipation before you get tutored officially: Having been deeply involved in the stuff for an unconscionably long time (near 2 decades, back when), I can tell you that, almost without fail, “prospects” demand a cloak of confidentiality, 90% of the time “because we don’t want to alert _____________ and ruin the deal.” The blank is handily filled by some of the following: the competition; the place we are trying to escape, for one of three main reasons; our financial backers; people in your town who might be disappointed if we don’t get what we want/need; or our many real or imagined enemies–opponents of who we are, what we do, etc. Of course, the bottom line IS about timing and money; got to respect and honor that. But when the money issue is actually about what you will pay us to cut our bottom line, we throw out the “JOBS FOR ALL, AND THENCE A REALLY WONDERFUL FUTURE–TO BE SHARED BY US and YOU” card, which is almost always trumps in the game.

    Then the sumbitches (West Texas occult term) settle their families in someplace like Onion Creek, West Austin, or wherever they came from. Deal done, Chamber and EDC happy, CoSM triumphant, HaysCo toeing the line, as they must, and SMCISD being the same as it ever was. Bill Adams seems to know all this. (“Genius, I tells ya!”)

    Governments CAN also deal from their communities’ ‘strengths, and make “prospects” deliver–in public, at some point–instead of explaining later, usually solo, without the Greek Chorus, which has by then gone home. If there is an explanation, it is this: “The economy has been so turbulent that our projections may have been a bit ambitious. The bag you are holding is not really empty, if you will stand there and hold it a while.”

    In short, it is a fine line of balancing interests, ego, sideline cheers and boos, and all. Some can do it, some not.
    It might be one reason to be careful whom we choose each November. Kind of a test, if you will. Now sleep well.

  16. Maybe we need to step it up a notch and have expense report details posted online, too.

    “The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions that I wish it to be always kept alive.” – Thomas Jefferson

  17. “Maybe we need to step it up a notch and have expense report details posted online, too.”

    I like that!

  18. Here are some further pertinent points from the “Public Square Project” website:

    “By demanding better online access to government information, we will send a message to politicians that transparency must be a fact of our political life, period. We can now get instant access to all kinds of information, even on our phones – to the weather, sports scores, traffic conditions, and yet some of the most valuable information of all, government information, is trapped on paper in filing cabinets and only accessible during business hours and for a copy fee. In 2010, that’s just crazy.

    What’s more, government information is usually only available after the fact, meaning that we, as citizens, have no opportunity to influence policy debates as they happen. That’s why the tagline of The Public=Online campaign is “Government in Real Time”. Transparency after the fact is too often meaningless.”

  19. Another idea for improving transparency: “Open Portal for Public Information Requests” – Why not create a central, online clearinghouse for Freedom of Information requests? This idea came from the “Public Square Project” team. On this portal idea, they state, “That way, everybody could see what information is being requested, how requests are being made, and how quickly local governments respond to requests.” And as further noted, “We have a ways to go in changing the culture of secrecy that too often surrounds public information in our local governments.”

  20. I’ve got a stupid question – I understand that some discussions take place in executive session because they are confidential and remain confidential. Others take place in executive session, because they need to be confidential *at that time*. Once negotiations are over re: various “incentives for economic development,” is it possible to “declassify” the minutes from the executive sessions? Once the deal is done, the details of the negotiation are no longer sensitive, I would think. There is no longer a risk of blowing the deal, because it is over.

    Just a thought. I really don’t know the answer, off the top of my head.

  21. I agree that once “incentives for economic development” have been finalized, we really should know the details, along with an explanation of the pros and cons. Surely it would be easy for the people who approve them to articulate the benefits and reasons why they feel it is a good expense of taxpayer money. Regarding the cons, there should always be some “things to make sure as the deal unfolds” so we can make sure (in the years to come) that we got what we were looking for.

    On some of the “big decisions” it would be nice to see the “why this makes sense” from the supporters, along with “the other side” from the people who voted against (or, if the decision was unanimous, then at least a “things to watch for” section).

    From the “Campaign for Liberty” website, another benefit of transparency in government unfolds:

    “Big savings: Transparency websites can save millions through more efficient government operations, fewer information requests, more competitive contracting bids, and lower risk of fraud. Using information from her spending transparency portal, Texas State Comptroller Susan Combs has identified $8.7 million in savings already, $4.8 million of which has already been realized.”

    Over at the OhMyGov! website, I read that an, “enterprise mashup company, JackBe, recently announced the release of their “Transparency 2.0 Solution,” designed exclusively to provide real-time data feeds and data widgets for state and local agencies that need to deliver stimulus, recovery and related data to their constituents.”

    At the JackBe website, I found a succinct description of benefits to improving transparency in local government:

    “State and local agencies that have embraced the ‘democratization of data’ have seen many positive outcomes from their efforts including:

    * Credibility and accountability — better public access to data means a better understanding and appreciation for agency efforts.
    * Productivity — citizens can ‘self-serve’ their data needs, freeing agencies for other projects.
    * Effectiveness — better data accessibility data supports better decisions by government analysts and researchers.
    * Participation — increased data availability supports greater participation by citizens.
    * Creativity — more data will lead to improved problem solving and opportunity-creation.
    * Confidence — more data means citizens can readily see the value that government delivers.”

    My intent for this “letter to the editor” was and is to get this issue more into public thought and discussion. The comments and dialog here (plus direct conversations) confirm the interest and desire. And, I believe we can determine the best ideas that fit our community right here right now, by engaging dialog and input from all facets of our community.

    I hope our current community leaders, and new candidates for election, embrace and include transparency in their platform. I hope they provide details and examples of what they plan to do, including why (benefits) and how. I believe there is a groundswell of support (in the community) for this initiative.

    It has powerful and far-reaching implications on how we can further improve San Marcos both for the present and future.

  22. Transparency in local government can foster community dialog and improve consensus building within the community.

    Just reviewed a presentation that Andrew Krzmarzick (GovLoop, Director of Community Engagement) did a few months ago for the Texas Municipal League that further confirms the train (transparency) has left the station. He included insights from Beth Noveck (Wiki Government) as follows:

    “Ordinary people…possess information – serious, expert, fact-based, scientific information – to enhance decision-making, information not otherwise available to isolated bureaucrats…people are ready and willing to share that information across geographic, disciplinary, and institutional boundaries.”

    I still believe we have an amazing and largely untapped resource right here in our midst – Texas State University, the students, faculty, administration, all have so much to offer, and getting them involved with local governance dialog and initiatives can be meaningful for all involved.

    I really like what I read at the website of Mike Schmitz (Mayor of Dothan, AL) on Consensus Building Within the Community:

    “Promote Unity. It seems that there are as many different opinions about how things should be done as there are people (in our community). What we know is that, small differences aside, it’s amazing how many of us agree on the larger, critical issues. We want to be builders of goodwill, both within the city and when we reach out to our neighbors.

    Inform The Community. We’re stronger when we work in unison, and it’s our goal to clarify the issues, present them to our community, and work hard to bring understanding of all the points of view to the table of government. When all the facts are gathered and everyone is heard, it becomes much easier to reach agreement on what is best for all of us.

    Make Fair and Equitable Decisions. My position is this: “I will fight for people, not with people.” Unwarranted confrontation rarely gets things done, but some fights are necessary. I will do all I can to bring people together, but I also promise not to shy away from the tough decisions.

    We need the community’s enthusiasm, understanding and support to meet the challenges ahead. I know how powerful we can be if we work together.

    And remember… Together We Can Do Better!”

  23. In the recent race for Mayor in McKinney, Texas, I liked seeing the following platform statement from one of the contenders:

    “TRANSPARENCY AT CITY HALL:
    a) A user-friendly public communication network that encourages citizen participation in city decisions rather than just informing them after the deal is done
    b) Stop over-budget spending and demand fiscal responsibility by creating online access to the city’s checkbook
    c) Limit Closed Session Council meetings to only those pertaining to internal personnel issues or those issues that compromise our competitive edge with neighboring cities “

    In a “closer to home” example of Texas cities putting financial information online, last month the City of Austin announced, “the launch of a new web-based service that provides details on each of the City’s active purchasing contracts. The Online Contract Catalog (http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/contracts) allows users to search for specific City contracts or browse through City contracts by category, displaying vendor information, total authorized contract amounts, and total dollars spent to date.”

    “This is an important milestone in our ongoing effort to put the City’s checkbook online, so Austin taxpayers can see exactly how their dollars are being spent, and with whom” said Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell. “I’m very pleased with City staff’s excellent work on this project, and look forward to continuing to work with them to give Austin citizens better access to more information online.”

    Leffingwell said one of the important benefits of the Online Contract Catalog is allowing vendors to identify opportunities to pursue business with the City of Austin. “By making it easy to see exactly what the City is spending money on, exactly how much we are paying for goods and services, and exactly when our current contracts are expiring, we are creating opportunities for prospective vendors to win City business by meeting or beating the prices we’re paying now, and potentially saving Austin taxpayers the difference.”

    I also like the four platform points on creating true government transparency that Rebecca Kaplan (currently running for Mayor of Oakland, CA) stated at her campaign website:

    “1) As Mayor, I will open the City’s data to the public. Citizens have an absolute right to know what the City is doing with their tax money.
    2) Important public documents must be available online, and in a fully searchable format.
    3) The City needs to adopt a comprehensive records management system. Today, we have no clear policies regarding records storage and retention, which results in important documents being lost or destroyed. This is unfair to the public, and it also costs the City money by forcing work to be redone, and also has cost us money in lawsuits.
    4) As Mayor, I will publicly reveal my daily meeting schedule. No exceptions, no excuses, just full disclosure.”

    I especially like what Billy Moore said in another thread this evening: that our leaders need to show, “the personal integrity to vote by conscience and explain the vote. In public. For the record. To the affected people and those who pay for sound government.”

    Plenty of cities across Texas and the nation are recognizing the need to change, to become more open and responsive to the citizens they are supposed to serve. Let’s put San Marcos on the map as a city that is truly of, by, and for the people. Elected leaders, candidates, city officials, this is an important issue!

  24. Trouble with “online reimbursement and expenditure requests” is that there is always some no-neck, or group of no-necks, out there to raise a stink because “Goin’ to all them meetings and conferences, including the annual National League of Cities Congressional Conference in WDC and a bunch of educational and information-gathering events, is a ‘waste of my good tax money!'” Notwithstanding that some such activities actually feature ways and reasons to conserve tax money, to comply with law, etc.– it is one of the defining characteristics of those I know as “no-necks”– the very banner of their love of ignorance and their spite for “smart-alecks.”

    Time was, and may yet again be, when SM was aswarm with wizards of government who were obsessed with “waste, fraud and corrupshin” and thought they had discovered it, often by looking in the wrong place. It may be there, but seldom in the “meetings any thinking official will go to” column.

    Ted, once again! Not at all a dumb question about Executive Sessions.” The answer, as usual, is not simple. The law does allow them, sometimes requires them, sometimes merely ALLOWS them. The ball, or pea, is usually hidden in the latter. Usually, the CM or Mayor setting the Agenda, or Council Member (read “any government official in any administrative or judicial function at any level of gummint) asks the body’s attorney for confirmation which it is.
    Some attorneys are better for the public than others, needless to say; everybody likes to have a compliant one, of course. Some bring bad news–no ES merited. Some are vulnerable to bullying, and comply if at all possible, by any stretch of the imagination. Some get fired or persecuted for giving “wrong” answers.

    State law clearly allows Executive Sessions for matters relating to private personnel matters. Also for certain contracts and expenditures containing, especially, third-party confidential or protected information. For example, it is not too desirable to lay out that a coming discussion is about allegations of fraud or child-molesting on someone’s part, before an indictment is brought or a case is proved. A public body could lose its literal ass over that. It would be an indictment before any trial, and would cause real, provable damages to an innocent or a person with a stout lawyer. Talk about unneeded expenses to the public body!

    SOME economic development negotiations are similarly protected, although every midget in the parade asks for extreme confidentiality, and officials insist on it when they DON’T want to be exposed selling the farm. Or our birthright for a mess of pottage, to use the Biblical term. The negotiating terms of certain contracts likewise, though they should certainly be more than “published in a newspaper of record” after the fact. A public official cannot, for logical reasons, trumpet his/her (the community’s) negotiating position too far in advance of shaking hands; but again, the handshake terms should be public in advance of the public meeting when it is to become official. The cards must be on the table long before any peremptory agenda item to pass without comment.

    We need all to remember always another one of the Eternal Principles: For every question, there is an answer that is short, clear, easy to understand, and “dead ass wrong.” Ted, Steve and a good many others who trouble themselves here seem to understand that. There may yet be hope, if it spreads.

  25. “The law does allow them, sometimes requires them, sometimes merely ALLOWS them. ”

    Bill Moore hits the nail on the head with the above line. Public officials, if allowed, will always act like they are forced to have secret meetings. The old “If it were up to me, we would have done this in the open but my hands are tied” excuse. Does not wash anymore. Once more, if councilmen would get up and leave in an unnecessary secret meeting, this would stop.

    Bill it has been my experience that the public soon sorts out the postings of people who object to everything while knowing nothing. Gee, maybe that is why nobody pays attention to my posts?

  26. Dear Charles: I sympathize, believe me, but I tend to recall the greatest lines from
    “The Phantom of the Opera”: at precisely the peak dramatic moment, when she lifts the mask and sees the horror of the face of her brilliant-but-monstrously flawed suitor. As she recoils in disgust, the Phantom Makes a timeless judgment: “Close your eyes, Christine, for they will show you only the TRUTH, which is not AT ALL what you wish to see!” (You can read that little dandy in multiple ways, as may be your bent, as it is subtle and layered in meaning, but the bottom line is always the same, no matter which you choose.) Unfortunately, it kinda loses its punch once it gets to be a fad. Needing a false world (not the same as the “better” one we all carry in our heads) as a Snuggy isn’t new, and it’s always been pervasive, and even rather empowering and fulfilling, to those who are cynical to begin with. It’s the historic “ideal bait” for those the tribal leaders believe are stupid. Babies want their fables, adults good news–or maybe “no news,” which the popular saying (Or was it the US Supreme Court? Getting dizzy…), claims exactly the same as good news.

    Manufactured “good news” is all skin and no fruit. Your luck is to be the government’s food inspector from a stubbornly conservative brain’s point of view. You do that. You help sort out the spoilage and low quality of what we are fed. And you leaven the bread of the community. All in all, true to your calling, you sort through what is being fed us. I may never agree with quite all you say, but I am glad to compare notes, and feel free to argue with you when you force me until one of us concedes or changes his mind, or a draw is satisfactory declared. Same as always…Marquis of Queensbury Rules, and only when appropriate.

  27. There is nothing quite like reading words wrought by Billy Moore to kick start my brain in the morning.

    I don’t always agree with you, but I do appreciate you – very much.

  28. “Gee, maybe that is why nobody pays attention to my posts?”

    We’re paying attention Charles.

    I predict that the evidence of such, will be borne out, this November.

  29. Bill’s Phantom of the Opera quote reminds me of the old Huey Long quote. “One of these days the people of Louisiana are going to get honest government and they are not going to like it.” I guess we should all be careful of what we wish for.

    “I predict that the evidence of such, will be borne out, this November.” B. Franklin you are an eternal optimist. My reaction runs more towards;

    OMG, total defeat may be in the cards.

  30. Too many times we find out about deals after they have essentially been done. Open government provides sunlight onto the meetings and discussions as they are taking place. Transparency enables community members to be aware of and participate in the dialog when they have expertise and when they are going to be impacted by the decisions.

    I keep hearing an undercurrent thought from people in positions of power, that we the citizens aren’t smart enough to understand the complex decisions our city leaders are making. Or that we wouldn’t have enough time or interest to really dig into the matter and understand all sides. This thinking manifests into a, “we’ll tell you what you need to know, when you need to know it” mentality.

    And then we have political games on who is going to get credit, or political pettiness. For example, it took 6 months to get single-stream recycling approved, even though the contract was so beneficial to the community and this should have been an easy decision to make.

    How about the extra $4 million dollars our city leaders “all of the sudden” decided to give the Stonecreek Crossing developers. Or the several million dollars they tried to give the Springtown Mall group recently?

    Our city leaders tried to push through the multi-decade contract with LCRA on the consent agenda (in other words, without any discussion by the City Council). They only acquiesced to one informational meeting after public outcry, but to this date we still don’t know much about this major contract.

    Recently, our Mayor announced to developers in Austin that we are implementing SmartCodes, even though it has not been fully developed or approved. This certainly rubbed people the wrong way, especially those residents who received notices that their property was (“all of the sudden,” unbeknownst to them) being rezoned (have a nice day).

    We have reporters being told they can’t audiotape open meetings by SMCISD. And then we hear about the airport being turned over to a private management company without due process to ensure competitive bidding.

    Folks, the saying, “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” can help us realize the need to improve how we make decisions in our community. Viva Transparency!

  31. “No more discussing an item one week, getting a lot of pushback from the public and then trying to sneak it in a few weeks later, under a different heading.”

    Let’s see:

    Are we making a motion to “Approve to Deny”

    or

    Are we motioning for a ” Denial to Approve”

    San Marcos City Council and Mayor Susan,

    It’s blatantly WRONG,…and you quite well know it !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  32. “No more discussing an item one week, getting a lot of pushback from the public and then trying to sneak it in a few weeks later, under a different heading.”

    Let’s see:

    Are we making a motion to “Approve to Deny”

    or

    are we motioning for a “Denial to Approve” ?

    San Marcos City Council and Mayor Susan,

    it’s blatantly WRONG,….and you quite well know it !!!!!!!!!

  33. Documocracy – info the majority of people have access to and can understand; not a small, powerful minority (Pludocracy).

    This will lead to more participation, creativity and confidence. Good suggestions all. How many can we replace this year? Susan, John, Gaylord and Pam? Let’s have a whole new majority!

  34. There’s plenty of opportunity to go around for all involved. Everybody currently sitting in positions of power (on the City Council, Commissions, Boards, City Staff, SMCISD, the Chamber of Commerce, and more) can do a lot to improve openness in government. And, regular citizens who simply live, work, grow here in the community, can choose to show up and get more involved, rather than simply complaining after the fact.

    I’d like to see every current leader and every candidate for office, embrace transparency and promise to make real improvements, and then follow-through.

    We the people of San Marcos, the people who plan to live here for many years after current decisions are enacted, we better get a lot more involved in P&Z and City Council meetings. Some of the issues we need to keep an eye on include:

    1) Infrastructure developments culminating in roads above Spring Lake (including one that runs right over Sink Springs, an open hole to the aquifer at the end of Spring Road)
    2) Annexing land to benefit developers (at the expense of current citizens)
    3) Implementing half-baked “smart” codes
    4) Condemning land and taking it away from long-time homeowners
    5) Giving more taxpayer money needlessly to developers (for example, Springtown Mall)
    6) Further increasing our long-term debt and obligations beyond our means (we seemingly silently more than doubled our long-term obligations during the past 5 years)
    7) Leaders using their positions and our money to convince voters to approve a permanent tax increase where we send millions of (our) taxpayer money every year to Austin and receive questionable return on investment (ACC)
    8) Approving hundreds of thousands of additional dollars a year for more economic development personnel
    9) Hobnobbing with the County Commissioners to spend parks bond money on a shooting range
    10) Further weakening the Horizons Master Plan through more sweet deals for developers
    11) Ill-considered Land Development Code revisions (could include elements such as off-site parking, trees, water quality, noise, lot sizes, building heights, etc)
    12) Wasting more money on “branding” the city
    13) Implementing a “Neighborhood Commission” to help rubber stamp their agenda
    14) Approving an inflated annual budget without any true cost cutting

    Now is the time to become more vigilant with our Mayor and City Council. Now is the time to demand open government from our leaders.

    And, how about this for another idea for improving propriety in government: either by City Council resolution, or City Charter change, establish that former City employees, Mayor, and City Council members, cannot leave their position to work as consultants for companies that the city had awarded (or might award) contracts (or special deals/incentives) to, at least for a certain period of time. The government-industry revolving door results in arrangements that are fraught with potential for conflicts of interest.

  35. City employees are already restricted from representing someone, a firm, etc. for a one year period after leaving a position, though this standard does not apply to an elected official. Some professional association ethics requirements require more than one year though. They can and should be allowed to go to work at a private employer, but they certainly should not represent that employer/client regarding their business with the city for a year. The government-industry revolving door at the municipal level is more of an issue in larger cities (i.e. Austin). I cannot think of an instance in which a major city decision-maker has gone to work for a firm doing business with the city or likely to do business with the city in the immediate future. As for city staff, it is not uncommon for firms to recruit staff from cities, not because it will give them an advantage in city dealings, but because they are talented.

  36. Thanks for the information, and that is good to know. I agree the city staff can and should be able to move into the private sector if and when that is good for their individual situation. And, I understand why some professional association ethics requirements might call for more than just one year. I definitely would like to see some kind of government-industry revolving door “rules” established for our local elected officials, too. I wonder, should it extend to Board and Commission members?

  37. There are plenty more examples at other cities who are launching open government initiatives.

    The “Salt Lake City’s Open Government Initiative” website provides comprehensive information on what they’ve accomplished in the past year, how they went about it, and what they plan for the next year.

    Seattle has an awesome video portal. And, the “National Academy of Public Administration” has a comprehensive “Open Government Dialog” forum with plenty of conversation and examples of what has worked (and not worked) as local governments become more open.

    The “Institute for Local Self Government’s Public Confidence and Ethics Project” has some materials on how the Mayor and City Council can more effectively interact with City Staff.

    The “Public Engagement and Collaborative Governance” program has some very helpful materials available for download for free or nominal charge, including:

    * Principles of Local Government Public Engagement
    * Planning Public Engagement: Key Questions for Local Officials
    * Beyond the Usuals: Ideas to Encourage Broader Public Involvement in Your Community
    * A Local Official’s Guide to Public Engagement in Budgeting
    * Planning Public Forums: Questions to Guide Local Officials
    * Getting the Most Out of Public Hearings: A Guide to Improve Public Involvement

    When our city leaders are ready (or forced) to get in gear on this subject, there is even a template resolution for adoption of open government over at the NBBLO website. Here is an extract from their five-page template:

    “The Mayor and City Council members believe that an open government consistently follows these basic principles:

    * An open government provides the public and its employees easy access to information that educates and informs.
    * An open government listens to all the people affected by its actions. No person or group affected by the City’s actions has a greater right to be heard than anyone else.
    * An open government sees the public and City employees as sources of creative ideas and effective solutions.
    * An open government follows its stated processes, is truthful, and welcomes accountability.
    * Open public officials disclose their conflicts of interest to the public.”

    I hope we see many (if not all) of the candidates (and current elected officials) embrace these basic principles. It will help San Marcos become an even better place for us to live, work, play, learn, and grow.

  38. New book just published a few months ago: “Open Government – Collaboration, Transparency, and Participation in Practice” by Daniel Lathrop and Laurel Ruma. (It’s a big book (432 pages) with over 30 different essays and case studies.) I am looking forward to reading this book and seeing how we can apply some of the material here in San Marcos.

  39. Another good read (short, 160 pages) is Hope Unraveled; The People’s Retreat and Our Way Back by Richard C. Harwood. discusses “a public life and politics in desperate need of repair” and how to step forward and act to ‘fix it’…

  40. Thanks for the tip, and that sounds like a very helpful book, too. I like what Amazon has to say about the author:

    “For nearly two decades, Harwood has led the charge to redeem hope in our politics and public life, discovering how to create change in the face of negative conditions. He has developed new kinds of leaders and civic-minded organizations in dozens of communities across the country. Called a “Johnny Appleseed of community involvement,” Harwood has devoted his energies to spreading a vision for what American society should be and putting innovative practices to use on the ground to turn that vision into reality.”

    I look forward to reading that book, too. And, over at, “The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation” website, one can, “Download a free copy of Rich Harwood’s essay, Make Hope Real. Learn about the five factors that each of us must consider as we work to create change and make hope real in our communities. The essay provides tools for thinking about your work as well as a starting point for creating local conversations about what it takes to make hope real.”

    Everybody I talk to in San Marcos about transparency and open government is in agreement: This is a vital next step for improving the effectiveness (and efficiency) of our local government.

  41. More good ideas for community rehab. Be neat if there was any chance that Steve’s NBBLO principles of open government were hung prominently at City Hall, where both Council and its clients would have them to look at all the time, with copies through the building for any potentially forgetful staffers and Appointees.

    We might also take the truly lazy (or “busy”) person’s way out and look on the “Hill.” Our town does house the Texas Society for Public Administrators, built from the ground up by Dr. Howard Balanoff, who built “the Rising Star”‘s widely known and universally respected (except for some career politicos) Master’s in Public Administration program from the ground up. It is founded on the keel, or dare I say, backbone, of ethical approaches to government, and was suckled by several famously ethical folks like William P. Hobby. That outstanding degree has been earned, with honors, by several sitting City Staff and appointed Directors, who quietly KNOW all this stuff, as well as several now-“departed” Appointees who knew and tried to practice it.

    Then there are Dr. Vince Luizzi of Philosophy, a former part-time sitting Municipal Judge who is professionally and personally consumed by the study of ethics, especially in government; and aside from these guys, other respected ethics authorities. I believe none are in the Administration, so I don’t think they would often sit down with city “leaders.”

    A few of these folks actually live here, and thus “have a dog in this hunt.” Just that nobody thinks to ask for their help. It has happened, but it has been a while. Don’t suppose there would ever be a Town Meeting/Symposium on such an obscure and forgotten topic, though…. Sigh.

    Steve, I hope this dialogue is not confined to just a few of us irritable eccentrics. Oh, well. Stand Fast. Carry On.

  42. Let the sunshine in! I am convinced there are enough people in San Marcos who want to see our candidates, elected leaders, and city staff, embrace and exemplify open government.

    Here is a copy of a great blog from Michael Barnhart of the “Sunshine Review” (a non-profit organization dedicated to state and local government transparency).

    Let the “Sunshine” In…Why Transparency Matters
    January 27, 2010 by Michael Barhart

    “Some argue for more “Sunshine” in government as if transparency is a positive onto itself. It is not. Transparency matters because it guarantees access to information that empowers every citizen to hold government officials accountable for the conduct of the publics’ business and the spending of taxpayers’ money. Official accountability to the citizen is the great positive; the corner stone of self government and liberty.

    Sunshine matters because without transparency there can be no accountability. And, without accountability, there is no self government. Without accountability, government of the people is government over the people.

    The opportunities for government transparency have never been greater. The Internet allows direct, low cost access to virtually unlimited quantities of documents and data, while an array of telecommunications devices can instantly transmit information to millions of citizens simultaneously. But for all the power of these technologies, government cannot be fully transparent—and thus accountable—unless disclosure is de rigueur.

    “Freedom of Information Act” laws do facilitate a degree of citizen scrutiny. But government agencies easily exploit a variety of FOIA loopholes, and even the savviest citizens can be stymied by the convoluted requirements. Thus, government at every level must be forced to provide citizens ready access to all budgets, contracts, audits, permits, meeting minutes and the like. It is entirely reasonable to expect that such “affirmative disclosure” should be no less stringent than the multifarious disclosure demands government imposes on taxpayers.

    Many states, counties, cities and school districts come up short in providing an appropriate level of transparency. For example, California’s budget site does not disclose line item expenditures, grants, state contracts, or employee compensation data. Massachusetts has no online database of state spending. New York posts its financial reports online, but in a PDF format that is not searchable.

    A useful method of evaluating government Web sites—a 10-point “Transparency Checklist” —has been developed by Sunshine Review, a wiki platform for measuring government Web content against what should be available. As noted on the Sunshine Review Web site, “We shouldn’t have to ask the government for permission to be an informed citizen.”

    From another perspective, I see Molly Phelan (running for Chicago City Council) had some interesting things to say about transparency at her campaign launch earlier this week (as reported at Lake Effect News website):

    Saying there was “a difference between transparency and putting something up on a web site because a city ordinance tells you to do it,” Phelan vowed to bring “active transparency” to Chicago.

    “I’m going to tell you what’s going to happen before it even happens. I’m going to tell you what’s in my mind and I’m going to have my open community meetings video-taped so that if you have to work late you didn’t miss it. You can go home and watch it on your computer,” Phelan said. “You’re not going to miss a thing because I’m giving it to you. You don’t have to find out anything about me because it’s going to be right there.”

    If she wins, and fulfills her campaign promises, wow!

    I hope we have local candidates for Mayor and City Council embrace active transparency, before and after the elections. If enough of us regular citizens keep bringing it up to them, then eventually they will have to listen and respond.

    We don’t have time for political pettiness. We are geographically located in the midst of hyper growth, and decisions made now will have long-term far-reaching implications. We need to foster a community spirit where dialog is encouraged and there is respect for different opinions.

    People are talking. Neighbors are getting together, saying we need to change how things are done in local government. We should involve local expertise from Texas State University. We do need a Town Meeting/Symposium on this subject. We must and will prevail. This is a movement that is more than a flash in the pan. I believe we can infuse this election cycle with a groundswell of support for open government.

    Let the sunshine in!

  43. Plenty of other communities are seeing local candidates talk about opening up government. Ric McIver, candidate for mayor in Calgary, say this on transparency at his campaign website:

    “* Open up the policy-making process, especially budget deliberations, by minimizing the number of closed-door Council and committee sessions.
    * Establish a registry of interest in land within city limits for all members of Council, senior city administrators and their immediate family members.
    * Implement the use of a “Hansard” (publicly available record) for all Council meetings.
    * We must give our department managers the authority to answer questions promptly without day-long delays.”

    Over at Wikipedia, I read that a Hansard, “is the traditional name for the printed transcripts of parliamentary debates.” McIver mentions the city of Las Vegas as a good example in this area. They have a portal that on one side has all the agenda items hyperlinked to the details and supporting materials, and then on the other side of the screen the actual deliberations that took place on the specific topics.

    Thinking more about our City Council meetings, I wonder if we should restrict emails and text messaging by the Mayor and City Council members during the meetings (while on the dais). And, I’d sure like for City Staff to be able to give answers without having to worry about repercussions from the Mayor and City Council.

    Many of the ideas in this thread (initial post plus comments) have great merit and deserve true consideration. And, this collective list is just the beginning. We’ve only just begun this dialog. We need a lot of citizens ringing the bell on this subject, in order to create real progress. Nothing will happen unless enough people show up and get involved on this subject.

  44. While Mr. Harvey’s dialogue is great, it is worth pointing out that Wikileaks dumped thousands of pages of classified documents on the Afghanistan War in the name of transparency. Transparency in campaign fundraising and officeholders expenditures is always a good idea to make sure we maintain an ethical government. Transparency in how the elected do the governing can be an impediment to the deliberative process.

    Council should be free to exchange emails during meetings and free to get additional information on any subject. It is a representative democracy not a town hall style of government — elections matter. Transparency is no replacement for an engaged electorate, and it should not just become a cheap disguise for populism with neverending campaigns. Sometimes, I want the elected leaders to be leaders instead of constantly playing to the crowd. Plus the crowd that would follow any sort of full access would be the motivated fringe and would give a distorted indication of what the community at-large might feel on a given subject.

    Viva transparency indeed, but only to its proper limit.

  45. Posting tens of thousands of classified military field reports about the Afghan war jeopardizes lives and operations. Many open government advocates say WikiLeaks is endangering the privacy rights of others in favor of self-promotion.

    I totally agree that the systems and processes must be robust and protect data which is not appropriate for disclosure. Here at the local level, we can learn from the “trials and errors” of other communities as they open up government. We can especially and most importantly be inspired by the many successes to-date throughout the country, too.

    I’m not so sure the Mayor and Council members should be privately texting and sending emails to each other during the actual City Council meetings. And, what about text messages and emails that come directly to them from outside the chamber, during the meeting. Do we really want secret lines of dialog taking place during these public open meetings? Do we want select people to remotely watch the proceedings and secretly weigh in during certain points of deliberation? Now, I have no idea whether this is happening here in San Marcos, but it is a contemporary issue that other communities have considered, in the interest of keeping things above board and open.

    On the flip side, I’d love to see a data feed of online comments coming in from the community during the meetings, as long as it is viewable by everybody. Some conferences I’ve attended included such a feed on one of the screens in the front of the room (and online), and it provided an interesting addition to the dialog taking place at the front of the room.

    Our leaders need to discern the will of the people. That requires regular and open dialog within the community. And, when critical issues are pressing, we should consider opening up additional avenues for input and conversation. For example, from the recent O’Reilly Gov 2.0 Conference:

    “While the City of Santa Cruz, CA, is best known for its surfing and the beach boardwalk, the City is quickly becoming known for its interactive social media strategy for engaging residents in resolving the City’s budget crisis.

    Santa Cruz officials realized that it couldn’t wait 12 or 24 months for community forums and elections; decisions needed to be made immediately with the help of its residents. As a result, the City just launched a special community feedback portal which gives residents an opportunity to offer City leadership constructive suggestions to the City’s fiscal problems.”

    Open government calls for participation and collaboration. From the OpenPlans website, we read:

    The Open Government Directive provides some general examples like “New feedback mechanisms, including innovative tools and practices that create new and easier methods for public engagement,” as well as “Innovative methods, such as prizes and competitions, to obtain ideas from and to increase collaboration with those in the private sector, non-profit, and academic communities.”

    When our IT staff gets into the nuts and bolts on what data to open up and how best to accomplish the task, there is a very helpful document online (Open Data is Civic Capital: Best Practices for “Open Government Data”) by Joshua Tauberer, who runs the congressional transparency website, GovTrack. The “Government Technology” website also has a comprehensive case study entitled, “A How-To Guide for Creating Open Government.” The introduction to their, “The Future of Open Government” section has a rousing theme:

    “By making themselves more transparent, more participatory and more collaborative, governments gain tremendous opportunities to tap the creativity of their employees and their citizens. Engagement is no longer restricted to people who have the time to attend meetings … or the know-how to negotiate complex bureaucracies. Anyone who can operate a computer, or even a mobile phone, can access rich sources of public information and take part in conversations on important public issues. Any individual can contribute information and ideas that make a real difference.”

  46. Wow! 50 comments (so far), 60 ideas (so far), this is fantastic community brainstorming on how we can improve transparency and open government!

    If you’re just coming across this thread, or you’d like a summary, here is a recap of the 60 ideas (so far) articulated in the editorial and citizen comments:

    1) Post a record of votes (of City Council meetings) online within 24 hours
    2) Provide monthly or quarterly reports posted online from pertinent departments (such as planning, police, fire, CIP, financial, transportation, utilities, and others)
    3) Running tabulation (downloadable in spreadsheet format) of votes cast from City Council meetings
    4) Post downloadable video of City Council (and any others that meet in the City Hall chamber) meetings within 48 hours
    5) Implement a comprehensive ideas program where COSM employees, elected leaders, and other members of the community can contribute ideas and track their status online
    6) Host online discussion forums where citizens can bring up issues and true dialog takes place (look at “Localocracy” (Amherst, MA), “Colorado Smart Community” and “Front Porch Forum” as examples)
    7) Expand online options for conducting business with the city
    8) Provide capability for citizens to know when items have been added, deleted, or modified at the COSM website
    9) Utilize “Open311” (or other suitable) technologies to report and track non-emergency issues in public spaces
    10) Expand online calendar of events and meetings
    11) have a DVD copy of City Council meetings available for loan from the library
    12) Truth in Agenda. All agenda items should be worded so that the average citizen can understand the agenda item.
    13) All executive sessions are to be titled in such a manner that the average citizen can understand the agenda item.
    14) No more semi-secret meetings on buses, in restaurant back rooms, etc… The council will meet in a conspicuous public place where there is adequate room for citizens and the press. No more meetings held at the expense of an individual or business that has or expects to have business before the Council.
    15) All public notices of council meetings to be posted in a consistent manner. No more hiding the postings in obscure web places and no more not notifying the press.
    16) The City will establish the office of an Open Meetings officer.
    17) Our leaders need to be willing to stand up for and explain their positions and their votes at the dais, in front of the public.
    18) Each time a subject returns to a council agenda, it should be described the same way it was described the last time. No more discussing an item one week, getting a lot of pushback from the public and then trying to sneak it in a few weeks later, under a different heading
    19) Closed door proceedings should stick with specific agenda items, rather than having any and every topic discussed behind closed doors, according to the creative way in which it is labeled.
    20) Post (and keep updated) these documents online: the annual budget, the annual financial report, and the check register
    21) City staff provides monthly financial reports to the Mayor and City Council. Most of this information could easily be made viewable online for all to see.
    22) Deal from our community’s strengths and make economic development incentive “prospects” present their complete “pitch” in public.
    23) Have expense report details posted online
    24) Government information should be made available “before the fact,” meaning that we, as citizens, should have opportunity to influence policy debates as they happen
    25) Create a central, online clearinghouse for Freedom of Information requests
    26) Once negotiations are over regarding various “incentives for economic development,” then “declassify” the minutes from the executive sessions
    27) On some of the “big decisions” it would be nice to see the “why this makes sense” from the supporters, along with “the other side” from the people who voted against (or, if the decision was unanimous, then at least a “things to watch for” section).
    28) Our current community leaders, and new candidates for election, should embrace and include transparency in their platform (and provide details and examples of what they plan to do, including why (benefits) and how)
    29) Tap into the amazing resource right here in our midst – Texas State University, the students, faculty, administration, all have so much to offer, and getting them involved with local governance dialog and initiatives
    30) Inform The Community. We’re stronger when we work in unison, and it’s our goal to clarify the issues, present them to our community, and work hard to bring understanding of all the points of view to the table of government. When all the facts are gathered and everyone is heard, it becomes much easier to reach agreement on what is best for all of us.
    31) Develop a user-friendly public communication network that encourages citizen participation in city decisions rather than just informing them after the deal is done
    32) Stop over-budget spending and demand fiscal responsibility by creating online access to the city’s checkbook
    33) Limit Closed Session Council meetings to only those pertaining to internal personnel issues or those issues that compromise our competitive edge with neighboring cities
    34) Launch a new web-based service that provides details on each of the City’s active purchasing contracts
    35) Open the City’s data to the public. Citizens have an absolute right to know what the City is doing with their tax money
    36) Important public documents must be available online, and in a fully searchable format
    37) The City needs to adopt a comprehensive records management system
    38) The Mayor should publicly reveal their daily meeting schedule (for any and everything pertaining to COSM). No exceptions, no excuses, just full disclosure
    39) Our leaders need to show the personal integrity to vote by conscience and explain the vote. In public. For the record. To the affected people and those who pay for sound government
    40) Carefully consider which items should truly be on the Consent Agenda of the City Council meetings
    41) Review government-industry revolving door rules for city employees, and develop appropriate rules for elected officials (and perhaps Board and Commission members, too)
    42) Improve our video portal
    43) Select materials from the “Public Engagement and Collaborative Governance” program to train and implement
    44) City Council adopt a resolution for open government that articulates appropriate basic principles (reference NBBLO template)
    45) Circulate copies of Rich Harwood’s (free) essay, “Make Hope Real” so leaders can learn about the five factors that each of us must consider as we work to create change and make hope real in our community
    46) Compare to the 10-point “Transparency Checklist” developed by Sunshine Review
    47) Conduct open community meetings that provide dialog rather than just presentation, videotape and post them online
    48) Host Town Meeting/Symposium(s) on the subject of transparency and open government
    49) Open up the policy-making process, especially budget deliberations, by minimizing the number of closed-door Council and committee sessions
    50) Establish a registry of interest in land within city limits for all members of Council, senior city administrators and their immediate family members
    51) Implement the use of a “Hansard” (publicly available record) for all Council meetings.
    52) Give our department managers the authority to answer questions promptly without day-long delays
    53) Restrict emails and text messaging sent and received by the Mayor and City Council members during the meetings (while on the dais)
    54) Systems and processes must be robust and protect data which is not appropriate for disclosure
    55) Learn from the “trials and errors” of other communities as they open up government
    56) Discover and be inspired by the many successes to-date throughout the country, too
    57) Provide a data feed of online comments coming in from the community during the City Council meetings, as long as it is viewable by everybody
    58) When critical issues are pressing, we should consider opening up additional avenues for input and conversation
    59) Develop innovative methods, such as prizes and competitions, to obtain ideas from and to increase collaboration with those in the private sector, non-profit, and academic communities
    60) Have the COSM IT staff review best practice documents and case studies

    During the coming days, I will endeavor to roll up these ideas into a “Top Ten” list. I’ll post the first draft of it here (in this thread) for review and comment. The intent of the “Top Ten” list will be to focus candidates and leaders on the need for action, and to provide them a prioritized list, along with examples and background that can help them review, understand, and decide what they are going to do in response.

    And, please keep the comments and ideas coming. This material can become very meaningful in our dialog with candidates and leaders. When you talk to them, ask them what they think about these ideas. Ask them what they are going to do, themselves, to help improve transparency and open government. When somebody calls you on the phone asking what you think about certain candidates or issues, then make sure they know you feel transparency and open government is a top issue, very important to the community.

  47. Steve, your line of logic is timely and pretty sound. But I fear you have become both a techno-geek and a dreamer waiting to be disappointed. Some of these “Mr. Science” suggestions would cost a mint; would require a City Staff the size of the student body at SMCISD; would surely be the seedbed of an endless war of “he said, she said”; would even more empower the “Keepers of the Keys;” would refine the art of deceitfulness, and would zip right over the nodding heads of the vast majority of the ever-gullible electorate. And just think of the “gadfly” and “watchdog” class and their increased ability to bog down the whole mess over trivia. Rein in your electric horse. Look how all this works at the national level to produce effective government (!). Chicken Little was a loser from the start, by definition.

    More practically: I have personally seen and the final vote on a big and important piece of State legislation determined quietly by two guys standing next to each other and peeing in a Capital men’s room. The deal was done in the time they took to finish and zip up, without disturbing a soul but little ol’ me, who had come to testify to a Committee. And in DC, they just look you in the eye and lie, if you hem them in. Then, if the issue becomes a “real” one, they fire up the Propaganda Arm to confirm the lie and scatter tinfoil around the radar. Or they create a diversion by bringing up some trivial, but controversial matter. You DO watch TV “news,” no?

    Actually catching them in the act is about as useful and satisfying (Sorry, I got this from my esteemed friend and true colleague, Ron Hart.) as “kissing your sister.” Fortunately for most of us, I guess, bull-puckeying the public is not a hanging offense, at any rate. If they are that shady to begin with, they should never have got there. That weed would be killed before it sprouts, if the voters did THEIR duty, instead of just making elections a beauty contest or a mud-wrestling match.

    With minor tweaks and passionate pursuit, even the present “truth in government” system and laws can work. Just looking at the logic and substance of what the Honorable folks do and say can tell the astute observer when they lie, cheat, steal, and whore on the job. The next step is to BUST ‘EM. Then, There, if possible, but HARD in any event.
    (My old Granny used to break chicken-killing dogs by wiring the victim around their necks until it rotted and fell off– no recidivism. Zero. Nada.) If they break the law, prosecute. If they break the trust, recall ’em. If it’s on the scale of bad acts, criticize them in public. But NEVER wait to the next election, if it is a serious matter.

    PS: It is horribly bad form, viciously rude, for sitting officials to be telecommuting on the dais for any reason. Moreso if some poor, intimidated “normal” soul is there trying to be heard. In my view, the kind of “Honorable” who does that likely also farts in elevators and steals change from kids. And doesn’t wash hands before returning to work.

    If they don’t know the issues sufficient for discussion when they came in the room, they aren’t doing the main job they are now PAID to do. That is also why there IS a City Admin. Staff, why there IS a City Manager who IS the ranking person down there by LAW/Charter. We also pay them. And finally, if somebody asks a really insoluble question or something, Councils in the past have actually suspended the issue until it is established “how many angels can dance on the head of this specific pin?” Of course, it has become harder for them since they are now only required to half-read the material ONE time, instead of three, to avoid slowing down things. (Another really crappy and corrupt policy, sez I.) Sometimes issues need time to mature, to get the air, to “breathe,” as the wine folks might say. Nothing at City Hall ever requires breakneck speed, if everybody keeps the calendar and is prepared with backup. Sometimes new light is shed during the pre-decanting phase, anyway.

    Make another damn good question or two for the wannabe’s, now wouldn’t it?

  48. Here is another idea for open government. The Mayor and City Council members should not secretly commit votes to each other before deliberating an issue in the public forum of the City Council meetings.

    If some of them want to publicly state their current thinking and position in advance of a City Council meeting, then that should be fine, because they would be doing it publicly for all to see. (Of course, we need more various/effective means for the Mayor and City Council to communicate with the citizens. Oops, there’s another idea for improving transparency.)

    Many regular citizens get the feeling that votes on controversial issues (and even some of the mundane subjects) are already lined up in advance of the City Council meetings. If and to the extent that really happens, it needs to stop. And, regardless, we’d like to see true dialog and deliberation in the public setting of the City Council meetings. (Doggone it, yet another idea for open government. Smile!)

    Yes, I agree, some of these idea are getting into techno-geek and gee-wiz fanciful dreaming (at least, for our little town). But, we’re still in the brainstorming phase, which by definition means withholding final judgment (until later), and the more ideas the better (usually).

    Using technology (especially systems, software, and talent we already have on board) can reduce the specter of “gadflies” chewing up a lot of people time. They’ll have the information at their fingertips, where they can slice and dice the data to their hearts’ content.

    And, FOI (Freedom of Information) laws are not going to get the job (open government) done by themselves. We need to instill a culture of open, honest government.

    Certainly, the list reduction to the “Top Ten” will take into account reality and fiscal responsibility. We don’t want to make the California mistake, where citizens want the government to do more and more for them, but then not be able to fund the initiatives. Open government should enable us to get more of the right things done faster and at less total cost.

    BTW, yes I agree, we should bring back the third reading before an ordinance is passed (definitely improves transparency and open government since it allows time for the issue to be fully understood by those impacted and by our leaders on the dais).

    Let’s keep these ideas flowing here. We may not all be in the same physical room brainstorming, but we’re in the community, and at least we have this online comments thread to (virtually) converse on this issue. (Thank you, San Marcos Local News.) This thread does exemplify the importance and benefit of the original “number 6” idea (“Host online discussion forums where citizens can bring up issues and true dialog takes place”).

  49. In September, an open government conference will take place (just up the road in Manor, Texas). The “themes” of the conference include the following:

    * Open Government
    * Citizen Engagement
    * Website Technology
    * Mobile Technology
    * 311
    * Emergency Management
    * Social media in government

    As noted at their website, “manor.govfresh is a 2-day conference that brings together state and local public servants to better understand the costs and benefits of technology and open government.”

    Wouldn’t it be great to see some of our local leaders attend this conference?

    Elsewhere, I read that Kyle Mayor Lucy Johnson will hold a “Budget Talk” town hall meeting to discuss the Fiscal Year 2011 budget with citizens. The article says, “Johnson said she is calling the meeting to involve the public in the city’s budget process. The mayor said she urges anyone wishing to voice their concerns over property taxes, city debt and the availability of city services to attend and participate.” Sounds like a good example of open government in action, by our neighboring city, to boot!

    I recently read a post by Juan Sequeda (the co-founder and executive director of Semantic Web Austin, a newly formed non-profit that focuses on bringing semantic technologies and talent to Austin) challenging Austin to really open up government data. He notes:

    “The OpenAustin project has given the floor for people to propose ideas for the requirements of the new City of Austin website. Some of the proposed ideas are to provide an open API to government data, have machine-readable data feeds, and even offer data as Linked Data.”

    Over at the OpenAustin website, the following appears to be a good start:

    “OpenAustin and the City have chartered several starting initiatives:

    * Assess the validity and usability of the city e-service inventory.
    * Compare city service inventory with other peer cities to assist in gap analysis
    * Work with the city to determine what data streams are currently available and those that should be made available publically in machine readable form, and what technical approaches to use in publishing them to a city data portal.
    * Test social media strategies and tools for applicability to the city’s web needs.
    * Assess options to incorporate crowdsourcing as an appropriate development approach for components of the city’s web, mobile and e‐service capacity.
    * Support usability testing efforts for the current and future iterations of the city web presence.”

    We may not have as much technical talent in the community as Austin, but (a) we can learn from where they are going and how they plan to get there, and (b) we do have tremendous resources over at Texas State, and this (working COSM on improving the website, and open data initiatives) would be fantastic projects of interest for faculty and students to get involved.

    Over at the “GovFresh” website, Mark Headd recently posted his thoughts on government application contests that have taken place during the past couple of years. I bet we could conduct our own government app contest and get some very creative submissions.

    And, over at the “Democracy in Action” website, one reads:

    “One way to make city government open and accountable is to make records easily available. The records also need to be organized so it is easy to follow the sequence of events that led to a particular ordinance or decision. This especially applies to financial transactions.”

    Wouldn’t it be great to be able to easily follow the trail leading up to decisions?

  50. I heard three more good ideas (for open government) from citizens attending P&Z this evening:

    () city leaders host monthly open forum town hall meetings that foster real and open dialog
    () we should know what’s going on with the City Manager search
    () conduct surveys via various methodologies (print, online, email) and don’t make the surveys leading

    Elsewhere, I read today the “Coventry City Council (UK) and IBM successfully demonstrated a new approach to public engagement.” Press coverage says,

    “In what has the potential to become a blueprint for cities around the world, Coventry City Council started strategy planning by holding the world’s first city-wide online conversation with nearly 900 local residents, businesses and public bodies. The three day 24 hour interactive forum was named CovJam and generated over 2,000 posts from participants contributing their ideas and opinions. Participants debated ways Coventry could attract inward investment, sustain employment in the local area, personal security and how quality of life could be improved for all the city’s inhabitants.”

    Maybe the time is ripe for us to have a “SanMarcosJam” session of our own?

    John O’Leary (a GOVERNING contributor, a research fellow at the Ash Center of the Harvard Kennedy School, and co-author of “If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government”) wrote a good article a few months ago entitled, “5 Great Cost Saving Ideas.” The beginning of his article really sets the stage:

    “In the good old days, economic slumps were followed by recoveries. To survive lean times, governments tightened their belts, maybe raised some taxes and waited until the economy bounced back.

    Not this time. Crisis is the new normal.

    Tax hikes simply won’t get governments through this one. Neither the economy nor the electorate will allow for much in the way of tax increases, not after states collectively enacted $23 billion in tax hikes in 2009.

    So what’s the answer? Transformation – A deep and abiding commitment to government that is better, faster and cheaper. This means rethinking mission; focusing on core functions; and embracing a set of tools, technologies and organizational approaches dedicated to delivering true public value efficiently.”

    Here are his five cost saving ideas:

    1) 311 call systems
    2) Plastic cards for benefit delivery
    3) Economic development clawbacks
    4) Embracing competitive service delivery
    5) Shedding non-essential assets

    One of our already posted ideas is on a 311 system. On clawbacks, O’Leary further states:

    “The idea of using tax abatements is questionable to begin with, since other taxpayers will have to pick up the slack. But here’s a no brainer: If you offer a company a tax break, they ought to keep their end of the bargain. A “clawback” provision or other guarantee that the promised jobs will actually appear should be standard practice.”

    I believe our economic incentive deals have started containing clawbacks, and I’d certainly hope they always do from now on. It would be great to see that intent clearly stated in public by our city leaders.

  51. By the way, we’re now up to 74 ideas in this thread. Let’s keep those ideas coming! The more the better, at this stage of brainstorming.

    In addition to the first 60 ideas summarized a few posts earlier, here is a listing of the next 14, too:

    61) The Mayor and City Council members should not secretly commit votes to each other before deliberating an issue in the public forum of the City Council meetings.
    62) We need more various/effective means for the Mayor and City Council to communicate with the citizens
    63) We’d like to see true dialog and deliberation in the public setting of the City Council meetings
    64) Bring back the third reading before an ordinance is passed
    65) Some of our city leaders should attend the 2-day conference on open government taking place in September up the road in Manor, Texas.
    66) Provide citizens something like (better than) the OpenAustin project to give the floor for people to propose ideas for the requirements of an improved COSM website
    67) hold a “Budget Talk” town hall meeting to discuss the Fiscal Year 2011 budget with citizens
    68) conduct our own government app contest to get some very creative submissions
    69) Organize records online so it is easy to follow the sequence of events that led to a particular ordinance or decision (this especially applies to financial transactions)
    70) city leaders host monthly open forum town hall meetings that foster real and open dialog
    71) we should know what’s going on with the City Manager search
    72) conduct surveys via various methodologies (print, online, email) and don’t make the surveys leading
    73) let’s have a “SanMarcosJam” session of our own (a three day 24-hour interactive forum for citizens to discuss things like ways San Marcos could attract inward investment, sustain employment in the local area, personal security and how quality of life could be improved for all the city’s inhabitants)
    74) have the intent for economic develop clawbacks in all future deals clearly articulated by the City Council

    Viva Open Government!

  52. Once more, Steve: Getting responsible and conscientious government cannot require tons of ongoing research on the part of busy, easily-distracted citizens. Including me, the crazy old uncle in the attic. Including the self-confessed “political junkies” and the “gotcha” class. Therein lie the seed and the fruit of transparency.

    [Fact is, San Marcos public policy at one time DID require “clawback clauses.” Also incentives tied to commensurate cash participation. Also, no environmental or retail predators could even qualify for ANY special consideration. Not a law, but a hardcore rule of Councils. Poo-poo happens.]

    No promised ROI, no incentives. No tickee, no laundry,” as the old folks used to joke. The culture shift at City Hall is the problem.

    And there is absolutely NO way to keep Council members, even if outside Staff Briefings, Agenda Reviews or public hearings, from convincing each other how to vote. THAT IS AT THE HEART OF THE WHOLE CIVIC PROCESS, whether we like it or not. God forbid those Honorables should come in the room any more ignorant than they already do. Ever see one actually sit down and then slit open the Meeting Packet? (Oh, I forgot again. Now the stuff is on their laptops, so who knows when they get into it? SURELY they don’t also conspire by e-mai!l) Much.

    Also, if one has never done that horrible task in service to the regular guys, one may not have perspective on how much it takes to show up “armed (Whoops) and ready” to lay the agenda out to the public. Like weekends, nights, and spare time. And meeting for hours at a time in hard concentration is like doing surgery in war or disaster, I suspect–if the stuff is complicated, which a lot is, one can be forgiven for wanting to get the hell home. Only a really outstanding staff can help with that state of affairs, and they give each Honorable exactly what he/she demands or accepts.

    A good City employee team, of whom we have enjoyed a prodigious wealth here, is the key to the mint. And they dance at the whim of whatever numbskulls we send over there. So don’t ask much more of them. They not only dance among cobras, but also have to cope with citizen unrest and the demands of citizens who think they personally own the process, and get pissed if they are not properly spoiled. Here endeth the Sermon.

    *****PROPER journalism, for government, is the flour in the bread. We have been largely deaf and blind for several years. Thank eternal Providence for the arrival of SMLN, just before Authentic San Marcos tripped over the coming election and fell over the Big Cliff onto the Big Train Track. Maybe.

    Again, this is the Year of Opportunity. Right now, we will seat four people, a freaking MAJORITY, to reflect us collectively and individually and to the world, in the unforgiving mirror. If the voters care enough to do their job right, we can get some sleep at night.

    Unfortunately, that may get lost in the partisan turd-storm of State and National statesmanship as well. Alas!

  53. The public is invited to a meeting on Monday, August 16 at 7pm in the large meeting room located to the left of the entrance to the San Marcos Public Library.

    We will start the meeting with a brief presentation on transparency and open government, including examples of what other communities across the US are doing. Then we will do an open forum where we will get more public input and your ideas for open government (including all the ones to-date discussed here), followed by a list reduction exercise to help prioritize the top ideas.

    The intent is to bring this subject into normal consideration and dialog in the community. We all want to accomplish more of the right things, with participation and accountability. Specifically, at this point, we want to create a “Top Ten” list of initiatives that are actionable, timely, meaningful, and cost effective. The “Top Ten” list will facilitate focus and dialog with candidates and current elected leaders and city staff.

    This is the start of an on-going journey. Towards the end of the meeting, we will discuss next steps. Plenty of community members want to see more transparency and open government. There has been enough interest to form a new group dedicated to championing this cause. The current name for this group is “Open San Marcos,” but we can brainstorm other names and finalize the on-going group name at this meeting.

    For those interested, please mark your calendar and plan to attend. And, spread the word, let others know about it. We’ll construct a brief “press release” and send it to all the media outlets, to help spread the word, too.

    And, let’s keep the ideas flowing here! Tell your friends about this thread. Invite folks to contribute ideas. Let them know about the upcoming public meeting on August 16 at 7pm at the Library.

  54. OK Steve!

    75) DON”T hire Bell, California’s ex- city manager.

    (A great example of what happens when citizens don’t pay attention.)

  55. The hits just keep on coming. Here are five more ideas that surfaced today from various sources:

    75) Better city manager search this time around (for example, don’t hire the Bell, CA city manager, a sobering example of what happens when citizens don’t pay attention)
    76) Citizen journalism and coordination on attending various meetings
    77) Do Sunshine Laws requiring newspaper publication need to be updated for the Internet age
    78) FOIA should apply to police
    79) COSM IT should check out Google’s launch of Google Apps for Gov

    Looking forward to the meeting (August 16 at 7pm at the Library). And, let’s keep these new ideas rolling here online, in the meantime!

  56. The example set by Bell, CA, must include the Council’s greed. They had a “deal” with each other, the Manager and the devil. The objective was to inflate their own pay, direct and indirect. So the Manager took home over half a million a year. True. But if you follow the rest of the story about this town of about 40 thousand souls, the Manager situation, upon further investigation, outed their (Yes, Virginia–no other word except this horribly “over”-and-“mis”-used word–sorry I am.) CONSPIRACY, which involved contractors, developers, and other clients of the city.

    And yes, the trouble was that the citizens didn’t take the trouble to look, to pursue, to understand, and to DO SOMETHING about the state their city has gradually fallen into. Fortunately, we have citizens here who are not necessarily peering up the skirts of their leaders, but who rightfully proclaim the rights of the OWNERS to demand truth and openness from their EMPLOYEES.

    Of course, we also have our village peeping Toms and Tomettes, some of whom derive their nutrition from the “gotcha” game, which can be very distracting and demoralizing, and who never ACT on their suspicions, but make “revelations” and innuendo a part of their political party games. Every town has them. Texas and the US are running over with them–some well-motivated but misguided, and some of them doing it because they are hopelessly evil, or in many cases, so THEY get their turn at the public trough. The national ones, a few of whom are in seven or eight figures, have chosen their lives and professions as gutter rats. SOME jackal’s got to do it, after all, and one must admit it does pay handsomely. Beats working for a living.

    I wonder, did “Uncle” Walter Cronkite, the “most trusted man in America” for decades, ever stoop to sell self-promoting baseball hats, T-shirts, and gewgaws? Have or sponsor or promote partisan rallies? Encourage violent revolution or “Second Amendment justice.” No, he was interested in and busy at telling the truth. He even refused to slander the King of Slime, Tricky Dick Nixon, arguably the father of today’s abortive politics. No, Walter just reported what he knew, as he knew it for pretty sure. Took Woodward and Bernstein to locate the cracks in the System and bring the Trickster to his reward.

    I have heard in the wind that SM’s Freedom of Information hunt is ongoing, and that it may turn inward upon a few City staffers who are or were complicit in hiding stuff from the people. Anybody know if this is true, or merely a scary rumor? Good night, Bell, CA, and sweet dreams. Maybe like Little Orphan Annie and Scarlett O’Hara, you can look for a better tomorrow. At least those who don’t wind up in the slammer.

    Be interesting to check out the Open Government Meeting set for the 16th at the Activity Center. Hope all the candidates are there and don’t have important pedicures or something scheduled.

  57. We submitted announcement on the “Transparency in Local Government” meeting to all the local media outlets today. And, here are six more ideas that came in today to add to this online virtual brainstorming list:

    81) Conduct a quarterly “town & gown” open public meeting between COSM and TXST
    82) Post online in native data format all presentations delivered to P&Z and the City Council
    83) Consider instead of a “Top Ten” to create a “First Ten” list that is immediately actionable and eminently doable, followed up by a next wave of prioritized suggestions
    84) New hires (whether budgeted or not) should be extremely closely scrutinized (especially in this era of economic uncertainty, along with the fact that we are in-between City Managers)
    85) Post monthly list of new hires for the previous month, along with departures (include at least the name of the person and the position title)
    86) Minimize the use of contract (“temporary”) labor beyond 60 to 90 day projects in length

    Remember, we are still in the brainstorming stage on ideas to improve transparency, open government, and accountability at City Hall. Classic brainstorming best practice “rules” say to encourage as many ideas as possible, and to reserve judgment on the ideas during this stage. The more ideas the better at this point, since subsequent stage will list reduce, assess, and prioritize.

    Keep those ideas flowing, the more we have already identified in advance of the August 16 meeting, the better!

  58. Steve, once before, soon after the last Ice Age, we instituted regular public meetings of the City, SMCISD, County, and Rising Star. Little of use came of them, as they were like poker rounds, everybody bellowing around and hiding their hole cards–again.

    The sole relief, and maybe only lasting result, came near the end of a meeting I chaired (1999?). in which the “topic du jour” was a really crappy and dangerous road by the High School on Hwy. 123. The City–staff, council members and the active political class– had reservations about fixing either a County Road or a School District road. The SMCISD folks didn’t have either the means or the money. The County didn’t think it could “legally or fiscally” do anything. Once again, everybody had acknowledged the problem. Once again, everybody seemed ready to adjourn and go home and blame each other, thinking, “But I pay taxes to all three. HOW can this be?

    Saint Ron Hart, who sat next to me on the right for years without ever compromising his immaculate personal principles, including a rather pronounced and often strain of conservative Republicanism, stopped the show. He said, “wait. I don’t think we should just walk away. We all have a dog in this hunt, and I think before we leave this room we should take one of these cocktail napkins and all sign and pledge on it to fix the damned road. For OUR children, who are the ones hurt by it already for years.”

    Everybody was so shamed, or taken aback, or whatever, At any rate, the deal got done, right in front of God and everybody. The City and the County moved forward to fix the road. And nobody in anybody died, or lost his/her beloved seat at the dais, or got jailed. Or got sued. Or went broke.

    Old Hartsky never EVER took his eye off the ball, the reason he had volunteered to sit through six years of the “pageant.” He broke the dam and solved the problem. And I don’t think he has ever claimed any personal credit, since he just thought it the right thing to do. I’d vote for him or a person like him any day of the week. With him, you don’t have to worry a bit about the trust he held, or what he might have up his sleeve. He held it it in the same high esteem we all do when we cast our votes.

  59. First, I’d like to thank the many contributors to this thread with their suggestions and critiques of those things that can be done to achieve a much better form of governance for San Marcos. I found this web site last night when searching for more information about the upcoming elections. I didn’t know the site existed and I suspect many other concerned taxpayers may also be unaware of the site. Maybe an ad in the Daily Record could help 😉

    I sense some serious fervor in the comments in this thread. It has the feel of something revolutionary. As a property owner and business owner and most importantly a serial taxpayer, I feel that San Marcos government has abandoned it principal constituents for many recent years. The political developments in the last 30 days provide me with some hope that San Marcos government can get on the right track again and start serving the citizens rather than “serving them up” to the egregiously greedy special interests while exploiting the galactic-size loophole that permits the existing “campaign contribution” policies to mask an embarrassing systemic political bribery system that gives keen competition to many “third world” countries. The “SMARTPLAN” rezoning fraud comes to mind as a wonderful example of the SM government prostituting the city and its citizens for the benefit of the special interests elements.

    The door of opportunity has been cracked by the current mayor’s retirement. Hopefully, there are enough citizens of good will and good hope that we will exploit this opportunity so that we can assure that we will never again have a period like the last eight years of San Marcos government (which in my mind has been the most insidious of the last 25 years).

    Transparency, full disclosure, rigorous ethical policies, and rigorous enforcement of said ethical policies can go a long to maintaining proper governance.

  60. How about this for a strategy to open local government: “Make a solution so popular and visible that it can’t be opposed, and be so vigilant that we can’t be ignored.”

    And, here are some more ideas that came in this pm:

    87) Community Access TV vs. Government Access TV
    88) Partner with Texas State to create “learning laboratories” in various city departments and functions
    89) Open up the CIP process, reassess projects that have not been started, winnow the list down to essentials and set the “pie in the sky” dreams to the side

    Keep those ideas flowing!

  61. “The idea is for a democracy to survive it needs a relatively informed citizenry. Historically, in any republic, starting with the Romans, it’s only a small minority of people who get involved in this kind of thing. Most people just want things to work. Like me, I’m a couch potato. But the deal is this decade in human history is too important for you to stay on the couch.”

    – Quote by Craig Newmark (Craigslist creator and GovLoop Advisory Board Member) who is trying to raise awareness about open government and transparency efforts.

    Elsewhere in contemporary reading, I see Andrew Krzmarzick (GovLoop Community Manager) recently blogged that he, “learned that the City of Austin has launched an innovative online tool for the public to provide comment about their 2010-2011 Budget. Community members will be able to vote on priorities for unmet service demands and potential service reductions as the City works toward formulating its budget for next fiscal year. The public will also have the chance to add its suggestions to the list of options.”

    This example of open government is quite the contrast to our current leadership’s desire to fast track (60 days) the City Manager selection, and to not require municipal experience of the selected candidate.

    Now is the time for us to become more involved with what is happening to our community.

  62. Over at the City website, I see the “public is invited to comment on the City Manager profile.” They speak of an “open house on Wednesday, August 4 from 5:30 to 7pm at the Activity Center to give citizens an opportunity to comment on the qualities they would like to see in a city manager.” The announcement further encourages citizens to “email your comments to sanmarcoscitymanager@sanmarcostx.gov” (emails must be received by 5pm on Friday, August 6).

    Even if we don’t think some of our input will be taken seriously, it still behooves each one of us to provide input during this (very brief) window of opportunity. Me, I’ll email my input. Then maybe later I’ll file an FOIA request to see a copy of all the input received, just to make sure mine is there.

    Yes, it would be enlightened to ask for input through an online portal that allows others to see what input is being provided by members of the community, but at least we have a few days to send emails in on the subject.

    You know, I’ve never personally submitted an FOIA request (yet), maybe I should learn how, perhaps my first one should be to find out who (amongst the Mayor and City Council) voted for the City Manager Search RFP that doesn’t require administration experience, and who voted for the “finalize the selection in 60 days” rush, and who voted to not put the RFP for search firm through an open process.

    We the citizens deserve to know more about how these decisions (on such important matters) are being made.

  63. Over at the First Amendment Coalition website, I am pleased to read a federal judge ruled this week that, “Texas cities cannot join more than a dozen elected officials in a lawsuit aimed at overturning the Texas Open Meetings Act.” (The open meetings act bars a quorum of elected members of a governmental body from deliberating in secret.) But, we’re not out of the woods yet on this, since those elected officials are still pushing this lawsuit against the citizens.

    Several members of the community have called me (since the announcement of our upcoming “Transparency in Local Government” meeting that will take place August 16 at 7pm at the Library) to offer encouragement, support and further insights. Please continue to help spread the word about the meeting and this citizen initiative to open up local San Marcos government.

    And, to keep the “running list of ideas” up to date, here are the most recent additions:

    90) launch an innovative online tool for the public to provide comment about the upcoming COSM annual Budget
    91) allow others to see what input is being provided by members of the community on the desired profile for the new City Manager
    92) the Mayor and City Council should explain to the citizens why (a) they don’t feel the City Manager needs administrative experience, (b) they are fast tracking the selection to take place in no more than 60 days, (c) they didn’t put the RFP for search firm through an open process, and (d) all of this took place behind closed doors out of the public eye

    Keep those ideas coming!

  64. We need hearings and proposals described in a less misleading manner. For example, agenda item 22 for the August 3 (2010) City Council meeting states:

    “22. 8:00 PM Public Hearing to receive comments for and against amending the San Marcos Horizons City Master Plan by adopting the Institute of Transportation Engineers Context Sensitive Solutions Manual as an appendix to the Transportation Master Plan, removing a portion of Loop 110 from the Transportation Master Plan, and adding an extension of Leah Avenue from Clovis Barker Road to McCarty Lane to the Transportation Master Plan; and including procedural provisions; and consider ordinance on the first of two readings.”

    But, it is only when one gets to Page 518 (in the, gulp, 900 page packet to the City Council meeting), that one reads further details on how they want to update the Transportation Master Plan:

    “Loop 110 is a proposed future loop that would be a 4-lane divided roadway and would be utilized as a western outer loop from North IH-35 to South IH-35. The portion of the loop seeking to be removed is the portion extending from IH-35 to the terminus of Mc Carty lane. This portion of Loop 110 will instead be routed to the existing McCarty Lane, an existing major arterial road.”

    So, we now see they want to turn McCarty Lane into this 4-lane divided roadway, rather than Centerpoint. That was not clear in agenda item 22. And, I just spoke with a resident on McCarty Lane who was not notified by the City regarding this pending change, and in fact my phone call to them was the first they had heard of anything like this.

    Furthermore, through the conversation of diligent citizens, we discover this is all precipitated by the developers (Carma Development, LP) of the new “Paso Robles” subdivision (a proposed 1,338-acre gated community with 3,427 homes) demanding the City of San Marcos move Loop 110 from Centerpoint to McCarty Lane.

    Where art thou, transparency in local government? Well, friends, enough is enough, now is the time for us to rise up and demand open government here in San Marcos!

  65. Well, Steve, you read it to us in quotation marks: According to the City Attorney, it was THE ROAD itself that “wanted to be amended.” But why do they persist in holding Public Forum Meetings at 10 a.m. or 4 p.m. or some other time when the “little people” are normally at work (or in school–har, har!). Oh! Must be the meetings themselves requesting that, huh, Mr. Open Government? I’ve heard sometimes they will do that.

    (Mark up another suggestion for your important meeting: If it is in the middle of the night, I’ve got you covered. For normal human times, you’ll have to call somebody else.)

  66. In Re: note #67, above: Relax, Munchkins. It is just another, routine, unbid contract, where we didn’t have the TIME to vet applicants or seek competitive prices. You know, Steve. Just normal.

  67. A nice shortcut would be just to whisper to the eventual candidates in advance (or THE candidate, judging from last time) that he/she should check out the comments herein before the final interview. That should efficiently thin most of the sheep from the goats in a big hurry, without OUR having to play hide-and-seek with the Council and Staff. Save a lot of consultant time, too. (But again, will only ONE very significant person have any idea who that candidate is to be?) Like in “Button, button, who’s got the button?”)

    Don’t even get me started on my “no municipal experience necessary” rant. City Managers are NOT just ANY managers, Mr. Bones. They are trained at depth in an honored specialty. A City ain’t a damned “bidness,” no matter that the two share certain, and only the most superficial, qualifications. (One being that “gummint” is not a for-profit competition over a product or service–a distinction some can’t seem to fathom, maybe because they have themselves no business in government.) “Making a payroll,” the standard eye-roller, is just not a useful qualification, unless joined with some inkling of the intricacy of handling the public’s money. And good city staffers are tailor-made, not just hired for their loyalty and ambition and “productiveness.” Or at least, so “i” think.

  68. If I were a (reputable) developer, I would be leery of building in San Marcos. There is no incentive for anyone to buy a home here since the local government does not protect existing neighborhoods. San Marcos will never have a strong economy if people (and companies) have no faith that their investments will be protected. Too bad because we have such great potential.

  69. Changing McCarty Lane to a 4-lane divided highway in the Transportation Master Plan may be another case of the developers win and us regular citizens lose. I talked to some people this morning about this in person and they figured the transportation plans for Loop 110 would either never happen or it would be still many years down the road. I think they felt that if this was a really big deal then surely the City would have notified them about the hearing.

    If only we had known about this with a little more time for us to be able to do our own citizen mailing to each of the property owners along McCarty Lane, then we could have scrambled to get enough citizens to show up to the Tuesday 8pm Hearing to potentially make a difference.

    Carma Development already brought this request (to change McCarty Lane to a 4-lane divided highway) to the TAB (Transportation Advisory Board) twice, and both times it was soundly rejected. Then, the City Council eliminated TAB’s existence. How convenient. Now, Carma is demanding this directly to the City staff, and the City staff is recommending the City Council approve the request.

    It’s a shame most property owners on McCarty Lane have no idea what the City is about to do to their land. Planning a 4-lane divided highway right in your front yard seems like a pretty big deal to me. I am very disappointed the City did not want to let them know about the Hearing.

    We know some of our current leaders believe plans are just a loose set of guidelines, but once something is set into plan, then future leaders may be of the type that believe plans are to be implemented accordingly.

    This is another example where open government would enable citizens to know about what is happening and provide an opportunity for dialog and input before decisions are made.

  70. If you are unable to attend the October 16 “Open Government” meeting in person, please feel free to contact me directly (before or after) with any input, suggestions, ideas.

    Great insight from another thread:

    “If San Marcos officials are unwilling to follow the adopted plans (and the frequency of future land use amendments, zoning change and transportation plan changes approved seems to support this notion), then they need to bring the issue out in the open and rewrite them in the light of day with active, meaningful community engagement. This is essential to give the people a real voice, and to give investors new documents that allow them to confidently invest in San Marcos. Of course, the thought of San Marcos taking on such a task in the current hyper-polarized local political climate is a bit daunting.”

    Sounds like we need to establish and follow a schedule of review of all various city plans (land use, zoning, master plan, transportation, and others) to ensure harmony (between and among the plans) and regular updating.

    Also beneficial additional input from another thread:

    “For Steve’s List, somewhat akin to Schindler’s: Could we no longer wrap proposed Master Plan Amendments, Land Use Changes, Zoning, and Subdivision under the cloak of a SINGLE, yes/no vote, at P&Z OR at City Council? The way it is currently practiced, public business, often with enormous repercussions, is more like a peep show or a game of three-card Monte: There can be no winners except those performing, often not even in front of us. No, Earl and Stella, seeing it on closed circuit as it is finalized is no better. Half the time we can’t even tell for sure WHAT we are seeing, after the prayer and all the (dozens of?) declarations and Proclamations.”

    In this case, we want an appropriate level of scope to proposed amendments and ordinances, rather than rolling them up into a mega yes/no line item vote.

    Another insight elsewhere on this site:

    “As a plan ages, I expect there to be some changes because of external factors that weren’t considered or known at the time of adoption, and for new practices in real estate development (form-based codes weren’t even on the radar in 1996, and mass transit was just getting steam). That is why it is so important to routinely update the entire plans (including meaningful citizen participation–that is important to combating NIMBYism) and check the assumptions on which the plan was based. City comprehensive plans need a thorough review at least every five years for major, substantive changes.”

    Sounds good! And, more input (from Billy Moore in another thread):

    “I hope Steve and his “Transparency in Government” Munchkins have invited the public free education crowd to their meeting. There will surely be room in the audience, and maybe some interesting and relevant discussion. After all, them people run, get elected, and tax us all, as well. And in the long run, any potential damage they do will be much more serious than the little fiefdoms and Potentate shelters of the City or County.”

    I believe it makes the most sense to start with City Hall, but I agree that we must extend this discussion, scrutiny, process to SMCISD, too.

    A great example of citizen dialog can be found in the, “Paso Robles developer seeks city tax incentive” article and comments (almost 100 of them, and still going strong). There are wonderful benefits of information exchange, and hopefully everybody learns more about the various angles and perspectives.

    Perhaps we could have some kind of citizen online discussion forum where the topic can be started from (or at least linked to) the actual agenda item?

    Elsewhere, a fellow citizen called me after reading about the upcoming August 16 “Open Government” meeting, and had several very helpful suggestions, including:

    Everybody should become very familiar with the Open Meetings Act (and I was pleased to see an “Open Government” tab on the website of the Office of the Attorney General of Texas).

    And, in that context, armed with that knowledge, citizens should start questioning the details of what is going on behind closed doors in Executive Sessions.

    Gee, we’re almost into the triple-digits on ideas generated in this thread. Here is a list of the most recent new ones:

    90) launch an innovative online tool for the public to provide comment about the upcoming COSM annual Budget
    91) allow others to see what input is being provided by members of the community on the desired profile for the new City Manager
    92) the Mayor and City Council should explain to the citizens why (a) they don’t feel the City Manager needs administrative experience, (b) they are fast tracking the selection to take place in no more than 60 days, (c) they didn’t put the RFP for search firm through an open process, and (d) all of this took place behind closed doors out of the public eye
    93) We need to establish and follow a schedule of review of all various city plans (land use, zoning, master plan, transportation, and others) to ensure harmony (between and among the plans) and regular updating.
    94) We want an appropriate level of scope to proposed amendments and ordinances, rather than rolling them up into a mega yes/no line item vote.
    95) City comprehensive plans need a thorough review at least every five years for major, substantive changes.
    96) We must extend this (transparency and open government) discussion, scrutiny, process to SMCISD, too.
    97) Perhaps we could have some kind of citizen online discussion forum where the topic can be started from (or at least linked to) the actual agenda item
    98) Everybody should become very familiar with the Open Meetings Act

    Keep those ideas flowing. And, spread the word about the upcoming meeting. For those who can’t attend in person, email or call in your input (steve.harvey@cleantegrity.com or my cell 512.557.1298). And if you aren’t able to be there in person, but want to receive a copy of the meeting presentation, dialog and next step information, jot me a note and I can add you to the list so you can receive these things along with on-going group updates.

    And, if some of you have some great ideas for meeting facilitation, contact me directly. I’ve certainly facilitated plenty of meetings in my life, but I’m always eager to learn new ways to be even more effective in that role.

    Onward!

  71. Here is a copy of a “Letter to the Editor” that I just sent to all the local media, after my experience with the August 3, 2010 City Council Meeting “Question and Answer Session with Press and Public.” In the spirit of transparency and open government, I am placing a copy of this into this thread, for review, comment, dialog, consideration, preparation in advance of our August 16, 2010 at 7pm at the Library meeting on “Transparency in Local Government.”

    —*—

    Letter to the Editor

    At the August 3, 2010 San Marcos City Council Meeting, during the “Question and Answer Session with Press and Public,” I asked several questions. The Mayor, Susan Narvaiz, said the questions and answers are not included in the public meeting minutes. So, since I believe other members of the community would like to know the Q&A, here is a copy of the questions posed and answers received.

    1) “Are all questions and responses included in the meeting minutes? The Mayor said they are not, but that citizens can request a copy of the videotape and fast forward to the end to see the Q&A.

    2) “Is there a limit to the number of questions a citizen can ask? They Mayor seemed to indicate I should simply move on with any further questions.

    3) “Why did City Council approve removing the requirement for municipal experience for our next City Manager?” The Mayor said they wanted to open it up for business CEO’s to be considered, too.

    4) “Where can we see a copy of the RFP for the City Manager search? They Mayor said I would need to formally file a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request.

    5) “Can you identify which entities you deliberated on offers of possible incentives to during this evening’s Executive Session? The Mayor indicated they are not allowed to name the entities because it was brought to Executive Session by the Economic Development Board.

    6) Can you explain why you dictated a 60-day timeline for selection of our next City Manager in the search RFP itself? They Mayor responded that many (but not all) of the leadership felt the matter had to be acted upon with great speed.

    7) In tonight’s Executive Session, did you talk about any other topics besides A, B, and C as listed in the City Council Agenda? They Mayor stated, “No.”

    8) Can you explain the intent, beyond following the bare minimum of the law, what was the spirit and intent for not putting the City Manager search RFP through an open competitive bid process? The Mayor said that in the past, the City decided which firms they would directly ask for bid response, so the City is just following past protocol in this matter.

    —*—

    Whew! After a full day (Tuesday) of chemo, followed by 6 hours at City Hall, I am beat! Time to go to bed, for now…

  72. Thanks. I thought everyone did great and appreciate all of the people who came out. It was good to see Council listening to the people. I hope this leads to more open discussions, clearer agenda items and fewer rushed decisions.

  73. First of all I want to thank Ted for backing me up on last thread. I am the one responsible for changing it from the Paso Robles city tax incentive to the 110 Loop. It seemed that no one wanted to believe what I was saying and Ted came in as my knight, he saved and rescued me. I am so very thankful that SMLN has this venue to help individuals get the word out.

    Second, everybody who attended last nights meeting, thank you. I have been following Carma and Paso Robles for almost 2 years, and I am still very concerned and I promise to keep my head down and keep trying to get truthful and accurate answers to all our questions. I want them to put together a well thought out, well planned and designed development. Something that will be a benefit to them AND the residents of San Marcos and also Hays County. This “city tax incentive” still has me very concerned. Their is a paragraph in the agreement they want the city to sign. It is located on page 9 article III subsection 3.02, to me sounds like unlimited and free insurance, similar to what Washington DC did with General Motors.

    And in closing, my husband was approached by a “planner” for Carma last night and offered to have a meeting with him to talk about this development. We hope to be able to take Mr.Theriot up on this offer.

  74. Last night we experienced a taste of what can happen when enough different citizens get together and clearly present their points to City Hall. Some of the main ingredients to this recipe:

    * Citizens passionate about helping make San Marcos an even better place to live both now and in the future
    * Communications mechanisms for citizens to raise concerns and discuss various points so everybody can see the full picture
    * City Hall recognizing the overwhelming response and facts presented and then thoughtfully and properly responding to the situation

    This is but a taste of how we can nip things in the bud before the wrong actions get too far down the road (pun intended).

    What really woke me up on Carma Development was when I attended the last P&Z meeting (where they publicly floated the request for $20-30 million in incentives through the TIRZ process) and then (outside City Hall on the steps) overheard the developers thank one of their supporters and remark they were surprised there was so little opposition.

    Thank goodness San Marcos Local News ran the, “Paso Robles developer seeks city tax incentive” article. It provided the “call to action” and subsequent dialog mechanism (122 comments as of this morning) that facilitated the opportunity for mstevens, Ted, and so many others to share information and increase awareness from many perspectives. That article and comments thread is a real testament to the potential power of the people.

    But, as mstevens points out, there’s more to the story on Carma Development. Carma and our P&Z need on-going scrutiny by the public in order for us to ensure a quality result in Paso Robles.

    In other news, I was recently introduced to the, “Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, a non-profit organization that advocates transparency in government.” Their annual conference is taking place Friday, August 13 in Austin, and has a stellar agenda. It is so comforting to know there are many others throughout our great State who are actively working towards open government.

    At their website, I scrolled down the page through several items and came across this most interesting article entitled, “Judge Concurs with FOIFT Hotline Attorney – Grapevine City Council violated TOMA.” Here is an overview from their website:

    “In early March, Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter Jay Board contacted the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas (FOIFT) with several questions about a possible violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA) by members of the Grapevine City Council. The issue was immediately referred to FOIFT hotline attorney Bill Aleshire, who immediately concluded it was a, “…blatant violation of TOMA discussing employment of an independent contractor in executive session.” The newspaper sued and now a state district judge has ruled Aleshire’s conclusion was correct. Further appeals by the city could cost taxpayers $50,000 or more.”

    On the home front, some citizens wonder if our Mayor and City Council violated TOMA in their haste to secretly select the search firm for City Manager, and their secret discussions on wanting to remove the requirement for municipal experience, along with mandate of a rushed timeline to find somebody within 60 days.

  75. Our timeline and objective is to develop a consensus driven “First Ten” list of steps that can be taken to improve transparency and open government, and present this to the Mayor and City Council, along with the candidates who have filed to run, by the end of this month (August).

    Then, during September and October, we desire to see at least some of the steps being acted upon by city leadership, and hopefully embraced by all the candidates, too. The “First Ten” list will be followed up by further community driven citizen input on this subject.

    Some people in our community feel things are working pretty well just like they are. And, they believe we are plenty open enough already. Our desire, over time, is to help everybody realize how much better we can be, and the benefits open government can bring to current and future community members.

    For those keeping a running total, here are the additional ideas that have been added during the past few days:

    99) We want similar transparency and open government from SMCISD along with City Hall, perhaps there can be some “best practice” sharing between the two entities on this subject
    100) Questions asked by attendees during the “Question and Answer Session with Press and Public” at the end of each City Council meeting should be recorded (along with answers) in the City Council meeting minutes.
    101) The RFP for the City Manager search should be posted online rather than requiring citizens to individually file FOIA (Freedom Of Information Act) request to obtain a copy.
    102) An RFP for a top position such as the City Manager search should go through an open competitive bid process.
    103) One or more of our city leaders should attend the “Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas” annual meeting taking place on Friday, August 13 in Austin.
    104) City leaders should receive appropriate education on the Texas Open Meetings Act (especially as it pertains to Executive Sessions and such)
    105) There should be a greater proactive notification process for actions contemplated by the city that would potentially significantly impact community stakeholders (people, businesses, organizations, the environment)

    In addition to the virtual dialog here, I am really appreciating the direct dialog with folks who want to help, who share the same passion, and who have a variety of backgrounds and expertise to bring to the table.

    We want the “First Ten” list to reflect initial steps that are meaningful and actionable. We want to make a solution so popular and visible that it can’t be opposed, and be so vigilant that we can’t be ignored.

    Keep those ideas flowing, and the phone calls and emails, too!

  76. I happened to stumble upon the fact there will be a “budget workshop” tonight at 6pm at City Hall. Surely there are some better ways for us to find out about these opportunities for citizen involvement?

    Regarding the proposed city budget, we the citizens need a variety of opportunity to participate in community dialog on the FY (Fiscal Year) 2010-2011 budget, while it is being discussed, not after it is finalized and approved.

    For those who are interested, I saw a Facebook posting this morning (from the City of San Marcos) that the “City of San Marcos Fiscal Year 2011 proposed budget” is now available online at:

    http://www.sanmarcostx.gov/departments/finance/Docs/FY2011ProposedBudget.pdf

    I went to the City of San Marcos Twitter feed and see they posted about this there on Tuesday (the 3rd), also (gee, I missed seeing that one, but many days I can’t keep up with all the Twitter postings from the various people and entities I follow).

    I applaud the City of San Marcos for using social media tools like Facebook and Twitter to help get the word out on news and developments. These are important components to a comprehensive proactive communications program.

    Small (geeky) side note, it would sure be nice for the Adobe Acrobat documents to have hyperlinks utilized, where (for example) you can click on a Table of Contents item and it takes you right to that page in the document. This would be helpful for everybody trying to navigate through the 472 page document.

    In separate news, I posted the following in the “Council selects local Stroman Group for 60-day city manager search” article, and wanted to place a copy of it into this thread, too, since it is speaking to a major current situation on lack of open government here in San Marcos.

    “A simple Google search yields plenty of examples of how more open governments approach the task of selecting the search firm for City Manager position.

    Overland Park (KS), Kirkland (WA), Richland (WA), Friendswood (TX) and many more cities posted their City Manager search RFP online. Much of what I see in these documents from other cities appears to be sensibly written.

    Mesa, AZ even posted their search committee meeting minutes that explained their deliberation and selection of search firm for City Manager RFP. There are plenty more examples easily found online of how local governments are being open and honest with their citizens.

    Why is the Mayor and City Council being so secretive about the selection process for the search firm that will be tasked to find our next City Manager? Why are they making citizens file FOIA (Freedom Of Information Act) requests in order to eventually see the search RFP itself? Why did they deliberate on the RFP content and selection process behind closed doors? How did we come to select a person who has no experience searching for municipal leaders to be the search firm? How can we expect such a person to find the right candidate so much faster than true search firms experienced in filling municipal leader positions?

    Our Mayor and City Council are accountable to us the citizens of San Marcos. But, they are acting like we the citizens don’t need to know what’s going on here. This is not acceptable behavior by our city leaders.”

  77. The budget workshop is listed on the San Marcos Local News Community Calendar. All the city meetings that are on the City Hall Calendar will be there. Go up to the word “Calendar” at the top of the page. We have community listings there. There are also sports and music calendars and although the sports calendar is a bit sparse right now, the music calendar is always loaded.

  78. Oh, one more thing, if you click on the event, it will give you the address (with a map feature if needed) and times and more if we have more info.

  79. Hap, thank you for pointing out the community calendar online here. I like how it is laid out, with the hyperlinks, too.

    In related news, here is some food for thought from the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas in their article this morning entitled: “Are Attacks on Open Government Intensifying?” From their website, we read the following:

    “The passing of former Governor Dolph Briscoe last month gave us all reason for reflection on just how far Texas has come in the ongoing struggle for transparency and open government. Admittedly there have been many victories in comparison to other states. There have also been losses that have left the public in the dark. And make no mistake about it, this battle is far from over. Consider some of the challenges looming on today’s horizon: public business conducted on private email accounts, mobile phone text messaging or through voice mail messages that quickly get erased; a checkerboard system of public records retention policies that change as quickly as Texas’ weather; and, private companies that can legally be encouraged to shelter public information from public view as third party vendors who are all too often exempt from open government laws. But perhaps the granddaddy of them all is an effort by elected public officials to strike down legal penalties when they violate the law.”

  80. Kudos to the City Clerk’s Office for making my first FOIA request go so smoothly and quickly this week. I emailed the signed and scanned Open Records Request form yesterday pm, and this morning received an email reply with all the information requested included.

    And, here are some more ideas to add to the “running list” in this thread:

    106) We need additional ways for citizens to find out about opportunities for public participation in dialog on important matters (such as the annual city budget), while it is being discussed, not after it is finalized and approved
    107) It would sure be nice for the Adobe Acrobat documents to have hyperlinks utilized, where (for example) you can click on a Table of Contents item and it takes you right to that page in the document
    108) FOIA requests need to be honestly and thoroughly responded to, providing a complete answer to the requestor
    109) The City Manager needs to institute a culture of openness and honesty throughout City Hall
    110) The Mayor and City Council members need to be very careful in how they interact with City staff to support a culture of openness
    111) Energy should be committed to outreach to the computer-less, those who consider themselves inherently disenfranchised by virtue of their age, the language they speak best, or the part of town they live in (every citizen and stakeholder should benefit from transparency)
    112) The fact a topic can be discussed in executive session does not mean the council is prohibited from discussing the topic in public. Final say over whether a discussion of a topic eligible for Executive Session is closed or open rests with the Mayor and City Council, not the City Manager, not the Attorney. And the Council should act like it.

  81. Now Steve resorts to Adobe “hyperlinks,” which I know nothing at all about, in his desperation to get people to be open, honest, honorable, smart and truthful. Guess that beats reading the campaign literature, anyway. I weep. But “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina,” as Eva Peron supposedly said.

  82. Steve, aren’t “hyperlinks” those things you can use to look up pictures of nekkid girls (men, too, if that is what “rocks your boat) on a computer? Just wondered–don’t think I have any. Maybe I’m missing out. Maybe other citizens are, too. ? The vast MAJORITY of voters are working and trying to raise their children and get by. But then, that majority has lately been only a tenth of the people who MIGHT be voters, so maybe it’s no big deal. Word of mouth seems to have gotten us this far. (Steve, I just got my banjo tuned, and I’m trying to learn the “Deliverance” theme. So I’m busy.)

  83. Mr Moore, I’d be happy to see a 10% voter turnout in many elections. I don’t mind being told I’m wrong by a whole bunch of people, but when it’s just a handfull I can get a bit testy.

  84. As citizens become more engaged in what City Hall is doing, I bet we will see more (perhaps even a flurry of) FOIA (Freedom Of Information Act) requests being submitted to the City Clerk’s office. The basic process is very simple and does not even require a drive to City Hall. At the COSM main site (sanmarcostx.gov), hover your computer cursor over the “City Hall” link in the left column, then hover over the “City Clerk” link, then select “City Clerk Home.” On that page, there is a column on the right with “Quick Links,” one of them is the “Public Information Requests” document (click to download). Print it, fill it out, sign it, scan it, and email it.

    From the City Clerk’s Office main page:

    “The City Clerk’s office processes all public information requests. If you would like to submit your request online, please click on the “Public Information Requests” under Quick Links or you can email your request to: openrecordsrequest @ sanmarcostx.gov” … (which, I think, may mean you can skip the “print, sign and scan” step, and simply email the request via a simple text email, as long as you have all of the form entry items listed in your email).

    I wonder if there is a correlation between how open the government is versus how many FOIA requests are processed? It seems to me that the more open government, then the fewer FOIA requests that are necessary. I know some open government detractors feel too much involvement by citizens will gum up the works and slow things down. But, in some instances, slowing things down, to give work in progress more time in sunshine for people to see and think about and discuss, is just the right tonic.

  85. ” ‘Where can we see a copy of the RFP for the City Manager search?’
    The Mayor said I would need to formally file a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request.”

    ” It seems to me that the more open government, then the fewer FOIA requests that are necessary. ”

    With this type of cavalier and dismissive attitude by our Mayor (and her supporting members of City Council) toward her “subjects”,

    I might expect that she WILL experience a notable increase in those numbers of FOIA requests .

  86. B.Franklin: I have actually spoken to a citizen who has done the FOI cha-cha and got a copy of your document. That person posts here ocasionally, and might share, to save time.

    Steve: Now the City’s announcements are on Facebook? I thought that was for Lindsay Lohan or Sister Sarah fans and friends who like to stay in touch. Oh, well, better than being poked in the eye with a stick… if not very VISIBLE.

    This community is, or has been, indeed “pretty. near. perfect (puke!),” and I have long planned to die here, though SOME of us hope not too soon, and not abruptly. But in terms of politics, I may prefer my native West Texas. There, the Masters don’t sneak around like a bunch of giggling little girls doing something naughty. They tell people right out front what IS going to happen, then invite them to starve, move away, or go straight to hell if they don’t like it. Their way may be crude, but it is surely transparnent. (Must be their confidence in “the Awl Bidness Over All,” which we lack. Hay, sand and gravel production don’t have much dash and “balls,” I guess.)

  87. Citizens should be able to find and download the (complete) P&Z agenda packets in enough advance time to read and prepare for input and dialog during the meeting. How can citizens be informed and able to participate if the details are kept secret from them?

    For example, the agenda packets for the past several P&Z meetings are listed on a COSM page online:

    www. sanmarcostx.gov / departments / planning / PlanningCommissionMinutes.htm

    But (as of this point in time today August 8) the most recent listed is July 27, 2010 (they need to keep this page current), and the link to that packet is:

    www . ci.san-marcos.tx.us / departments /planning / CDBG / docs / 072310PZpckt.pdf

    In this instance, it would be VERY HELPFUL to be able to see the packet in advance of Tuesday’s P&Z meeting, so we can see what kinds of things Carma will specifically attempt to accomplish in the Public Hearing.

    City of San Marcos web pages need to be kept up to date. Packets for P&Z meetings need to be made in electronic form, not just hardcopy.

    We see in the agenda summary for the August 10, 2010 P&Z meeting that there are 5 (five) different Public Hearings scheduled. How in the world can citizens come prepared for one or more of the Public Hearings when we aren’t privy to the details?

  88. Kudos to our COSM Planning Department for their quick response this morning. I called and asked them to post the P&Z packet (the one for tomorrow night’s meeting) and within minutes they got it posted online.

    Switching gears, if anybody has any suggestions for how we can make the most of our August 16 “Transparency in Local Government” meeting, please let me know. I’m pulling material together for the overview presentation. It is inspiring and encouraging, to see what other communities are doing.

    Our leaders need to remember that, “All political power is inherent in the people, and governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, and are established to protect and maintain individual rights.”

    Why do we need open government? Because: “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” (James Madison)

    One of our local tenets could be adapted from the Washington Coalition for Open Government, and read as follows:

    “The people of this community do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”

    I also like their mission statement a lot:

    Independent, Non-partisan, Non-profit – “Dedicated to promoting and defending the people’s right to know in matters of public interest and in the conduct of the public’s business. The Coalition’s driving vision is to help foster open government processes, supervised by an informed and engaged citizenry, which is the cornerstone of democracy.”

    OK, back to the ideas list, here are the latest additions:

    113) RFP’s need to be handled with utmost care for adherence to the spirit and specifics of laws, regulations, norms, expectations
    114) Incentives for developers should pass some kind of bona fide citizen hurdles when the amount of money is very large (more scrutiny than two readings at City Council and it is passed)
    115) Meetings by lobbyists, developers, and others courting city business and incentives, these meetings should be logged, and the meetings minutes recorded (this applies to meetings held on city premises, as well as elsewhere)
    116) COSM website pages should be kept up to date
    117) Citizens should be able to find and download the (complete) P&Z agenda packets in enough advance time to read and prepare for input and dialog during the meeting
    118) Packets for P&Z meetings need to be made in electronic form, not just hardcopy

    I am looking forward to our “Transparency in Local Government” meeting taking place next Monday, August 16 at 7pm at the San Marcos City Library. And, if you are not able to attend, but have input you want to place into the meeting, then please contact me directly in advance of the meeting.

  89. Steve, I like that “independent. Non-Partisan. Non-Profit” thing. Have you run it by our “branding” committee and their consultants? Beats the one they are working from, by a country mile.

  90. Two different “Executive Sessions” scheduled this week. The first one (set for 6pm Tuesday August 10 in the City Hall Conference Room) says:

    “Executive Session in accordance with §551.074-Personnel Matters.
    A. Deliberation regarding City Manager vacancy.
    B. Deliberation on the duties and responsibilities of a public officer, to wit: Council members.”

    The timeline specified in the contract with The Stroman Group on the City Manager / City Clerk search says that on August 10 the following is to take place:

    “Special City Council Meeting to Receive Update from Consultant on Profile Development”

    Well, if that is what agenda item A is all about, some people tell me this kind of thing is not appropriate for secret discussion (Executive Session) based on their reading of the Texas Open Meetings Act. Why does our Mayor and City Council feel they need to conduct the City Manager search activities in secret, away from the public eye?

    As for agenda item B: that is quite an interesting entry, no idea what it is about.

    Then, the second Executive Session this week (which is scheduled for this Thursday in the City Council Chambers) simply says:

    “Executive Session in accordance with §551.074-Personnel Matters.
    A. Deliberation on the duties and responsibilities of a public officer, to wit: Council members.”

    Which means, twice this week, our Mayor and City Council are meeting on some cryptic entry regarding duties and responsibilities of Council members. What?

    We need more open government. There are too many secret meetings. Something is going on. The citizens deserve to know. In the absence of this knowledge, we are left to ponder all kinds of possibilities.

  91. I am pleased to report the “Deliberation on the duties and responsibilities of a public officer, to wit: Council members” agenda item listed in two separate Executive Sessions this week was actually only to be discussed on Tuesday. And, the Mayor said it was simply a council member reporting to the rest of the council on some research into what City Council members in other cities are tasked with performing.

    Separately, I see the City Council meeting packet has grown to 945 pages for the Aug 17 meeting. Wow, that is a lot of reading material. Not sure how the Mayor and City Council members have time to digest it all between Thursday pm posting and Tuesday pm meeting. These large packets are so overwhelming in content that it almost serves to obfuscate certain items at times.

    Ted Marchut posted the following in a separate thread:

    “It would be helpful, I think, for the city to have some workshops on how various funding measures work, how various requests move through P&Z and City Council, what city staff’s role is, what the CIP is, what the thoroughfare plan is, what the various master plans are, etc. In “the heat of battle” does not strike me as a good time for people to be learning this stuff for the first time.“

    “I have to wonder how much of the emotion could be eliminated and how much faster we could get to a constructive discussion, if more people understood more about how this stuff works. It would also go a long way toward keeping decision-makers (and others) honest. Unfortunately, I have been in many meetings, where city staff, elected representatives, and various volunteers could not agree on how a lot of this works.”

    Very insightful, and I added this to the open government ideas list accordingly.

    For those keeping track, here are the additions to our virtual brainstorming list in this thread:

    119) It would be helpful for the city to have some workshops on how various funding measures work, how various requests move through P&Z and City Council, what city staff’s role is, what the CIP is, what the thoroughfare plan is, what the various master plans are, etc.
    120) Presentations and handouts that developers give to P&Z and/or the Mayor and City Council should be made available in downloadable form for citizens to readily see and review, too.
    121) Figure out how to make the City Council meeting packet more manageable in size for all concerned

    I am looking forward to our “Transparency in Local Government” meeting taking place next Monday, August 16 at 7pm at the San Marcos City Library. Note, it is at the Library, not the Activity Center. So, show up at the Library for the meeting, if you can. And, if you are not able to attend, but have input you want to place into the meeting, then please contact me directly in advance of the meeting.

  92. During the “Transparency in Local Government” meet on Monday August 16 at 7pm at the San Marcos Public Library, we will try some different approaches to the brainstorming segment. We may have a good sized crowd in attendance, and I want to be sure we have the opportunity for open dialog (which means, for example, that my primary role will be that of facilitator, to help move towards public consensus on the “First Ten” list of open government ideas we want to rally around).

    Remember, this is a public open meeting, everybody and anybody who is interested in learning more and participating in expanding transparency in our local government is welcome to attend. I guess that is a positive way of saying it, the other way would be that if you like how things are right now, then this meeting is probably not going to be very interesting to you. (Side note, I may be strange, but I really do like to understand how and what other people think, and I appreciate other perspectives.)

    In other dialog, Curtis Seebeck wrote:

    “There have been many recusals on P&Z since I have been on the commission. Whenever a commissioner is not present for a vote after stepping out of the room, that is a recusal. It is not announced ahead of time even though I personally think it should be so that the general public knows that commissioner so and so recused himself. Maybe that is something that Mr. Harvey should add to his transparency list.”

    Done, added to the list, thanks for the input!

    In another thread, I stated:

    “At the end of Tuesday’s Executive Session, during the Q&A segment, I asked who will receive a copy of the top City Manager candidate profiles to review and respond. Our Mayor said it would be the full City Council only, not anybody on City Staff, not any citizens, just the Mayor and City Council. To help us make the best City Manager selection possible, I believe we would greatly benefit by having more people involved in the assessment of top candidates than just the Mayor and City Council.”

    And, I added this to our ideas list, too.

    In our meeting on Monday, rather than doing the “dots” thing (“here is a sheet of dots, go put the X dots on the ideas you like, and the Y dots on the ones you don’t), I will probably use a sort of ballot process. Since we can’t go through all 120+ ideas individually, this weekend I’ll categorize and group the ideas we have, and place a top 20 to 25 ideas on a ballot. This first (rough) cut will be based on prioritizing in three areas: should be easy to implement quickly, cost effective, and meaningful.

    We will discuss those ideas in the meeting, seeking input and thoughts from those in attendance. We will also ask for fresh other ideas that perhaps have not surfaced to-date, for consideration. And we will see if there are other ideas we’ve virtually discussed that the group feels should be in the first cut.

    Then everybody will be able to “vote” in writing on a ballot that has the first cut ideas, and the rating for each idea, on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 is least likely and 10 is most likely), how do you rate each idea numerically, in the categories of: (a) should be easy to implement quickly, (b) cost effective, and (c) meaningful. (This will hopefully make more sense during the meeting itself … smile!)

    The point of the meeting on Monday is not to discuss individual issue pros and cons, but to remain focused on concrete tangible steps we want to see taken by our City Leaders to improve transparency and open government.

    I am excited about the meeting, and I hope it will also be part of an undercurrent that wants to foster community camaraderie, where members of the community respect other viewpoints, and remember that we all love San Marcos, that is what ties us together, and that we want to make it an even better community for current and future stakeholders.

  93. Steve,

    Is everyone invited to attend? I might think I can make it if my 5 pm meeting does not take too long. It would be in my personal capacity, not as a P&Z Commissioner.

  94. Everybody is invited. Tell your friends. This initiative is all inclusive. It is a very public meeting. People will be there from all sides of the table (as it relates to current issues in the public dialog).

    But, this particular meeting will not debate pros and cons of particular issues. The focus for this meeting is open government. This meeting is for people on all sides of the various issues, who can come together to agree that we want to have a more participatory government.

    The objectives for the meeting and the near-term include:

    1) Raise awareness of (and inspiration to) what other cities are doing to improve transparency and open government
    2) Generate more ideas on how we can improve here in San Marcos to open up local government
    3) Make significant headway in creating a list of “First Ten” ideas
    4) The timeline is to complete the consensus built list of “First Ten” ideas and present it to our City Leaders and candidates by the end of August
    5) Establish an online petition for people to sign and publicly support the “First Ten” list
    6) Create a discussion forum dedicated exclusively to transparency and open government topics
    7) Maintain an email mailing list to proactively notify citizens of upcoming meetings and subjects of local interest
    8) Establish a loose network of citizen journalists who can attend meetings and jot notes for others interested (one can’t go to all the meetings, but one might be interested in more than just the meetings they can personally attend)
    9) Continue to press the case for actually implementing ideas from the “First Ten” list
    10) Develop a local group (current working name is Open San Marcos) that is dedicated to on-going citizen involvement and open government

    Our strategy is simple: make a solution so popular and visible that it can’t be opposed, and be so vigilant that we can’t be ignored.

  95. 7pm this evening at the San Marcos Public Library. Everybody is invited to attend and participate in the “Transparency in Local Government” meeting. Hope to see you there!

  96. Great meeting. Congratulations on keeping everyone focused and avoiding detours into some of the heated issues of the day. It was nice to see a lot of people from different sides of those issues, getting together to talk about how we can all be better informed.

    It was also nice to see some of our candidates/representatives there. It is a shame that some folks were conspicuously absent.

  97. We need to push Transparency on the government, while limiting the Transparency forced on the citizen.

  98. It’s interesting to note that Steve gave us two and a half weeks of advanced notice about this meeting and tonight, I received an invitation from the city, for an educational meeting about Paso Robles, to be held on Wednesday night. Two and a half weeks, or 47.25 hours. Which seems like an appropriate amount of notice?

  99. Yes! Great turnout. Standing room only. Passionate and thoughtful comments, and Steve and Deb Harvey have done an incredible job. Best run meeting I’ve ever been to (except for Inga’s)…
    And it brought many folks together from “both sides of the…”.
    Here’s what I learned:
    WE can make significant changes in the way things are done in SM, and Curtis Seebeck is not a jerk.
    Yeah!’

  100. I’ll echo that. I didn’t make the event, but it sounds like a great success. I am very happy to hear that folks from various sides of the “major issues of the day” were present and finding agreement. There are so many other issues in the city that could also find historically-opposed groups working together for common goals, even if their motivations differ or they don’t agree on other topics. Transparency is one of those universal things that everyone agrees is a good idea. People want to be able to inform themselves easily about the issues in their local community, regardless of stances on anything else. What I think is really great is that this group isn’t just talking about the problem–they are talking about constructive, practical solutions.

    And Chris, I could have told you long ago that Curtis was far from being a jerk. 🙂

  101. It was good to meet Curtis. I didn’t see Obama there. 🙂

    Hopefully the progress we made tonight will help to keep everyone engaged. It would be great to see the same group (or more) at the next meeting.

  102. I have done a little research on the charter. I was looking for specifics about the responsibilities regarding the agenda and executive session. I should warn that I have not had the time , nor the desire, to check to see if some where there are badly classified parts of the charter that might amend or change these requirements. The charter seems to be pretty up to date in codification so I don’t think this is a problem.

    This refers to my question about the Council agenda and specific charter requirements that I do not believe are being followed. If I did not articulate this very well at the Open San Marcos meeting, I appologize.

    . All meetings of the city council shall be public; however the council may recess for the purpose of discussing in a closed session any matter permitted to be so discussed by state law, provided that the general subject matter for consideration is expressed in the motion calling for such a session and that final action thereon shall not be taken by the council until the matter is placed on the agenda. Special meetings of the council shall be called by the city secretary upon the written request of the mayor or any three members of the city council.
    Notice the requirement that moving to executive session requires a motion to do so and a vote. All you need to do to put people on the spot if they want to hide behind closed doors is to vote no.

    Sec. 4.04. City attorney.
    The city council shall appoint a city attorney, who shall be a competent and duly qualified and licensed attorney, practicing law in the State of Texas. The city attorney shall establish his or her principal physical residence in the city within 90 days after appointment, and shall have his or her principal physical residence in the city continuously thereafter while holding that office. The city attorney’s compensation shall be fixed by the city council. The city attorney may appoint an assistant or assistants with the approval of the city council. The city attorney, or other attorneys selected by the city attorney with the approval of the city council, shall represent the city in all litigation. The city attorney shall be the legal advisor and counsel for the city and all city officers and administrative units; provided, that the city council may retain special counsel at any time it deems same appropriate and necessary. The city attorney shall prepare or review all ordinances and shall prosecute all criminal cases in the municipal court in person or through an assistant.

    I have been told by two of our elected officials that the City Attorney decides which agenda items will be discussed in executive session. The City Attorney is not authorized by the charter to decide if an executive session is called for. He works for the mayor and the Council and not the other way around. The council may ask for his advice on the advisability of moving into executive session but he does not control the calling of an executive session. The Mayor and Council control him. In another section below, it says the city manager MAY submit items for review by the city attorney. He is not required and the city attorney is only given the power to review and not control agenda items.

    (c) Duties of the city manager:
    (1) To appoint and remove all employees of the city, except where such authority is reserved to the city council or otherwise prescribed by this charter or by state law.
    (2) To appoint an assistant or assistants with the approval of the city council, and to supervise, direct and control all administrative units of the city, except those supervised by other appointees of the council.
    (3) To prepare and submit the annual budget to the city council in accordance with the requirements of this Charter and state law.
    (4) To keep the city council fully advised of the financial condition and needs of the city.
    (5) To recommend to the city council for action such administrative measures as the manager deems necessary or expedient.
    (6) To perform other duties as provided by this Charter and as prescribed by the city council.

    Sec. 2.044. Preparation of agenda.
    (a) The city manager is responsible for processing agenda materials for city council meetings. The city manager will submit agenda materials as appropriate for review by the city attorney and the director of finance. The city secretary is responsible for preparing and posting the agenda and assembling and distributing the agenda packets.
    (b) The tentative agenda for each city council meeting will be reviewed and approved by the mayor before finalization. The mayor may not remove an item placed on an agenda by prior direction of the council under subsection (c) below, or placed on an agenda as a discussion item by two council members under subsection (c) below.
    (c) The mayor and council members will provide direction to the staff on ordinance revisions and similar matters of city council policy only after discussion by the council members at city council meetings or workshops. The mayor or two council members may direct the staff to place a discussion item on an agenda for a city council meeting or workshop. If two council members wish to direct placement of a discussion item on a meeting agenda, they must separately contact the staff, and the contacts must occur before the mayor sets the agenda for the meeting.

    At first reading, it might appear that the city manager is responsible for the agenda. Not so. He is responsible for processing agenda items. Note that the actual wording says the City Manager will submit agenda items for appropriate review by the city attorney and director of finance. Once again, the City Attorney is not given the power to do anything but review. Does the finance director have the power to decide if an agenda item will be moved to executive session? No of course not. Note the last line of this section. “…the mayor sets the agenda for the meeting. In section B the tentative agenda for each city council meeting will be reviewed and approved by the mayor before finalization.” Approved by the Mayor!

    One of Liz Sumners best political skills is setting and manipulating the agenda. Not that I would ever suggest that the mayor behave like Judge Sumner. There is a county committee that prepares the agenda then it goes to the County Clerk for actual presentation but they are only advisory. The County Judge decides what is actually on the agenda.

    One item in the charter does get a little fuzzy and is poorly written so we can not be sure what it means without perhaps going back into council minutes to see what the legislative intent of the council was. If two council members and the mayor want to place a discussion issue on the agenda which is followed by two council members being able to place a discussion item on the agenda. The first problem is that the charter states discussion and not a regular financial or ordinance item nor consent items. Not sure why anybody would construct the language like that. Why only discussion? Someone may have a better feel for this than I do. I can see why there is a provision for two council members to place an item for discussion on the agenda. That is the safety valve to keep the mayor from holding an item hostage. But once again, we run into the “discussion” issue. As I understand it, a discussion is not an item that will be voted on. Why did the charter founding fathers not make the same distinction for all agenda items? Very strange indeed.

  103. Special thanks to the 56 people who showed up this evening to discuss ideas for transparency in local government. Some of the folks had to leave early, but this evening we still collected 46 ballots on the top 21 ideas. And, we had 48 people sign up to receive Open San Marcos bulletins. During the meeting, we also discussed the Open San Marcos initiative, as follows:

    Open San Marcos
    Independent / Non-Partisan / Non-Profit
    Dedicated to promoting and defending the people’s right to know in matters of public interest and in the conduct of the public’s business. Our driving mission is to help foster open government processes, supervised by an informed and engaged citizenry, which is the cornerstone of democracy.
    Our strategy: make a solution so popular and visible that it can’t be opposed, and be so vigilant that we can’t be ignored.

    The next steps now are as follows:

    * Tabulate ballots from the meeting and create first draft of “First Ten” list
    * Circulate draft “First Ten” list to group (and post here) for review and comments
    * Finalize “First Ten” list
    * Present “First Ten” to City Council, Staff, and Candidates (by the end of August)
    * Get media involved
    * Online petition
    * Establish online discussion forum
    * Conduct another public Open San Marcos meeting (by the end of September)
    * Deliver “open government” presentation to various city groups

    If you, too, want to receive Open San Marcos bulletins, just let me know.

    Quick side note, received links this evening to two FABULOUS items:

    2010 Public Information Handbook
    www. oag.state.tx.us/AG_Publications/pdfs/publicinfo_hb.pdf

    2010 Open Meetings Act Handbook
    www. oag.state.tx.us/AG_Publications/pdfs/openmeeting_hb.pdf

    Thanks again to everybody who has contributed to the dialog and initiative to-date. This is a good beginning. And, there are enough people in town who want to see more transparency and open government, that I am sincerely optimistic we really will be able to work together to help things get better!

  104. If you or somebody you know is good at statistical analysis, and has a little bit of time to take a look at the raw ballot data, please let me know (steve.harvey @ cleantegrity.com). This afternoon, I will start to enter the ballots into a spreadsheet. Just thumbing through the ballots manually, I see a good variety (spread) of votes on the three different attributes (actionable, cost effective, and meaningful) for each idea.

    I am sure that looking at the results from several aggregate views will help the “First Ten” cream of the crop rise to the top.

    From a continuing “transparent and open” theme, if anybody wants a copy of the spreadsheet with all the raw ballot data, jot me an email and I am happy to send it to you, too. The ballots are anonymous, so there is no individual private information involved.

  105. If you want to electronically vote (if you had to leave the meeting early, before we finished the group balloting process), jot me a note and I can email you a ballot.

  106. Curious about what the top items were that we voted on in the “Transparency in Local Government” meeting Monday evening? Here they are (the item number order simply reflects where they happened to be on the voting wall when we did the group voting):

    1) Post a record of votes (of City Council meetings) online within 24 hours
    2) Provide monthly or quarterly reports posted online from pertinent departments (such as planning, police, fire, CIP, financial, transportation, utilities, and others)
    4) Post video of City Council (and any others that meet in the City Hall chamber) meetings within 48 hours (indexed to be able to connect right to the item of interest, too)
    8) Provide capability for citizens to know when items have been added, deleted, or modified at the COSM website
    20) Post (and keep updated) these documents online: the annual budget, the annual financial report, the check register for al accounts, fund balance, and expense report accounts
    127) Improve the FOIA (information request) process
    44) City Council adopt a resolution for open government that articulates appropriate basic principles (reference NBBLO template)
    53) Restrict emails and text messaging sent and received by the Mayor and City Council members during the meetings (while on the dais)
    70) City leaders host monthly open forum town hall meetings that foster real and open dialog (and around times and locations that match citizens schedule availability)
    33) Limit Closed Session Council meetings to only those pertaining to internal personnel issues or those issues that compromise our competitive edge with neighboring cities
    93) We need to establish and follow a schedule of review of all various city plans (land use, zoning, master plan, transportation, and others) to ensure harmony (between and among the plans) and regular updating
    100) Questions asked by attendees during the “Question and Answer Session with Press and Public” at the end of each City Council meeting should be recorded (along with answers) in the City Council meeting minutes (and perhaps figure out a way to provide some Q&A earlier in the meeting agenda, too)
    111) Energy should be committed to outreach to the computer-less, those who consider themselves inherently disenfranchised by virtue of their age, the language they speak best, or the part of town they live in (every citizen and stakeholder should benefit from transparency)
    115) Meetings by lobbyists, developers, and others courting city business and incentives, these meetings should be logged, and the meetings notes recorded (this applies to meetings held on city premises, as well as elsewhere)
    119) It would be helpful for the city to have some workshops on how various funding measures work, how various requests move through P&Z and City Council, what city staff’s role is, what the CIP is, what the thoroughfare plan is, what the various master plans are, etc.
    120) Presentations and handouts that developers give to P&Z and/or the Mayor and City Council should be made available in downloadable form for citizens to readily see and review, too
    124) Better search engine throughout the COSM website
    105) There should be a greater proactive notification process for actions contemplated by the city that would potentially significantly impact community stakeholders (people, businesses, organizations, the environment) … more time on the big issues and big $$$, including public discussion meeting, separate meetings to introduce the issue, allow time for consideration and dialog)
    64) Bring back the third reading before an ordinance is passed (and don’t use “emergency” provisions too often)
    125) Post “project directory” online (where one can follow the life of projects/initiatives from inception, meetings, notes, votes, and such)
    126) All agenda items should be worded so the average citizen can understand the agenda item. Each time a subject returns to a council agenda, it should be described the same way it was described the last time.

    As soon as I get all the Monday evening ballot votes entered, then I will circulate the draft of the “First Ten” ideas to the group for review and response. I will post the draft here online, too, for any additional comments by those who could not make the meeting in person.

    Our intent is to present the “First Ten” to the Mayor and City Council, City Staff, and Candidates by the end of August. Our desire is to begin to get a groundswell of support for the “First Ten” and see them start to get implemented during the near-term.

  107. I love our San Marcos Public Library! They are always so helpful and responsive. I just got an email that they now have a copy of “Open Government: collaboration, transparency, and participation in practice / edited by Daniel Lathrop and Laurel Ruma” on hold for me to check out. This is the great book I mentioned a few posts back. I’ll check it out and then return it back to the stacks pretty quickly so others can check it out, too.

    Debbie and I are getting the ballots (from Monday night’s meeting) entered into the computer file. Once we have that finished, we’ll send the draft “First Ten” to everybody on the Open San Marcos mailing list for review and comment. If you are not on the mailing list and want to be, just let me know (steve.harvey @ cleantegrity.com) and I will be happy to add you to it. No dues, all volunteer, independent, non-profit, non-partisan, everybody is welcome.

    As people saw in Monday night’s meeting, we had folks in attendance on all sides of a variety of contemporary local issues. But, what we came together for was the overall community desire to improve transparency and open government. And, our intent is for Open San Marcos to be very, well, “open” (smile!) in all that we do.

  108. Debbie and I entered all the complete ballots, gave double weighting to the “Meaningful” attribute, and here are the resulting “First Ten” (listed in descending order, the top 1 being the biggest vote getter, on down):

    1) All agenda items should be worded so the average citizen can understand the agenda item. Each time a subject returns to a council agenda, it should be described the same way it was described the last time.
    2) Limit Closed Session Council meetings to only those pertaining to internal personnel issues or those issues that compromise our competitive edge with neighboring cities
    3) City Council adopt a resolution for open government that articulates appropriate basic principles (reference NBBLO template)
    4) Bring back the third reading before an ordinance is passed (and don’t use “emergency” provisions too often)
    5) Presentations and handouts that developers give to P&Z and/or the Mayor and City Council should be made available in downloadable form for citizens to readily see and review, too
    6) Better search engine throughout the COSM website
    7) Post (and keep updated) these documents online: the annual budget, the annual financial report, the check register for al accounts, fund balance, and expense report accounts
    8) There should be a greater proactive notification process for actions contemplated by the city that would potentially significantly impact community stakeholders (people, businesses, organizations, the environment) … more time on the big issues and big $$$, including public discussion meeting, separate meetings to introduce the issue, allow time for consideration and dialog)
    9) Post a record of votes (of City Council meetings) online within 24 hours
    10) Questions asked by attendees during the “Question and Answer Session with Press and Public” at the end of each City Council meeting should be recorded (along with answers) in the City Council meeting minutes (and perhaps figure out a way to provide some Q&A earlier in the meeting agenda, too)

    If you would like to see the raw data (Excel spreadsheet) to do some data analysis on your own, just let me know and I can email it right on over to you (all the ballots are anonymous).

    And, please review the above draft “First Ten” for clarity, let me know if you have any suggestions for the exact text we want to use.

    There are plenty of good ideas still to come, but we need to start somewhere, hence the “First Ten” approach, to get the ball rolling.

    Thank you very much,
    Steve Harvey
    steve.harvey @ cleantegrity.com

    (I sent the above email to each of the people on the Open San Marcos mailing list, and wanted to post a copy of the letter here, too. If you want to be on the Open San Marcos mailing list, let me know and I will add your name and email address accordingly.)

  109. One attribute of open government is that members of the community know about discussions in progress with an opportunity to participate in dialog. It was reported elsewhere that since 2006, “More than 50 meetings related to Paso Robles were held by city staff.” Based on the community perception of the dialog process with Carma on their proposed Paso Robles development, this lack of communications and involvement within the community is an example area for us to get better. With more than 50 meetings under their belt, and a number of them in Executive Session, this is the kind of opportunity for improvement that the “First Ten” list is intended to address.

  110. I filed an open records request on City Manager search information stating the following:

    “The Texas Open Meetings Act does not allow confidential discussion with a “search firm” or consultant. Accordingly, I am requesting transcripts from the July 20, July 28, and August 3 Executive Sessions on the “Deliberations regarding City Manager vacancy” as it pertains to the determination of search RFP contents, along with selection of the search firm itself.”

    We shall see what comes back…

    In general, I still like the idea of an Open Records Request portal where citizens can see what information is being requested by others, and the exact words being used to make each request.

  111. Oh, My. Dear. Steve. : I TOLD you I smelt “lawyers” and “charges” in the wind. And the WW Treatment Plant (about which, see more elsewhere in NS) is too far from my house, prevailing winds or not, to be the cause. I’ll double-check to see if an animal has died in the neighborhood, amid all this heat, and get back to you.

    Are you going to provide copies of whatever the AG has to say, and what you find, in time to beat the Nov. Erections? That would be the right thing for “Transparency Boy” to do, nicht wahr? Just hope the tapes aren’t lost. Then you may have to call a Texas Ranger–maybe our sitting Sheriff of HaysCo could help you. He WAS one.

  112. After the Public Hearing tonight, Debbie and I met and talked with Shaun Cranston (Carma) and Dirk Gosda (Sunrise Company). I must say, kudos to Carma for their open approach on the Paso Robles FAQs document they distributed last Wednesday. Shaun took the exact “issues” list I constructed in the Paso Robles thread (here on SMLN), and used them verbatim in the document. He is emailing me a soft copy of the FAQ document (just over 4 pages) and said I can certainly post it on San Marcos Local News for more people to take a look at their answers.

    One of the desires, goals, objectives, benefits for transparency and open government, is to foster community dialog on issues. To the extent participants will “step up to the plate” and engage real two-way dialog, that is very positive. I will read the Carma answers, I will probably have some questions and challenges still on certain points, but I do believe Shaun is totally sincere when he says he would like to speak with anybody who has concerns about the proposed Paso Robles development.

    Don’t worry, I’m not going “soft” on anybody, I’m still “allowed” to participate in community dialog with my opinions and concerns. But, as it relates to the subject of open community dialog itself, all of us should want to see people with different thoughts being able to discuss the issues in a respectful and open manner. That makes for a stronger, richer, more vibrant and enjoyable sense of place (community).

  113. Steve,

    I am glad you were able to visit with Shaun and hopefully, he will be able to answer your questions. Remember, there are no sides in this whole thing so there is no reason to say you are not going soft on anybody. You have a right to get accurate information and if your concerns are adequately addressed, I would hope, in the interest of transparency, that you would be able and willing to change your mind without having to worry about going soft.

  114. I’ve always tried to be open and strong enough to “change my mind” when based on new information and/or new understanding on issues. Some people think “changing your mind” about something indicates weakness or poor analysis to begin with. Me, well, life is short, we all can learn and should be open to honest dialog. And, in the instance example of Carma, we know something is going to get built, so why not all of us work together as best possible to ensure it will be something we can all say (20+ years down the road) was smart. Once I get the soft copy from Shaun, I’ll post it in the most pertinent Carma / Paso Robles thread, for more to see and then discuss (Carma / Paso Robles specifically) in that thread.

    In further transparency dialog, several City Staff leaders this evening (after the Public Hearing) spoke very highly of what they heard about last Monday’s “Transparency in Local Government” meeting. To the extent they also had time to read the draft of the “First Ten” ideas, they also spoke positively. We’ll assemble some “here is what is happening in other cities across the country” examples, and provide them to the City Leadership working on the upcoming RFP for overhauling the COSM website. That’s right, the City Staff is eager to improve transparency and open government in the COSM website. This is very encouraging and heartening to contemplate, that we can all work together to bring the COSM website into a mode supporting more open government.

  115. Steve,

    I also brought up transparency during the discussion portion of our P&Z meeting this evening. Specifically, I would like to see some sort of system set up to provide for dialogue on the issues we deal with. Right now, you are allowed to come to the P&Z meeting and speak for 3 minutes, then sit down. You can ask all the questions you want but no one has to answer them. I would love to see a system where questions could be asked by the public and answers could be provided by either staff or the applicants. Then further dialogue could go from there. One possibility would be to require any development that is asking for a PDD to have a citizen’s workshop before it is brought to final hearing and vote at P&Z. We discussed a number of ideas along those lines and asked staff to look into it and bring back some ideas on a future agenda. Too bad we were off in the municipal court room.

  116. Curtis: You seem to be alluding to a hybrid or lighter version of what some folks call “crowdsourcing.” There are a few bleeding-edge planning departments in the country that are experimenting with this practice as a way to find out the community’s questions/concerns about a project in a non-intimidating forum (many folks won’t come to public hearings due to convenience and nervousness about public speaking), and then making efforts to answer those questions directly and addressing them during the official meetings. Crowdsourcing does have a few pitfalls, but for large projects like Paso Robles I think such an approach has the potential to head-off controversy and create community buy-in. While I hate using Austin as an example of anything remotely resembling good planning, from the dais they will frequently require a developer to hold community workshops and negotiate with the surrounding neighborhood when a project gets a lot of negative blowback at the hearings. Good developers will actually do this without being asked because deep down, they want their project to proceed quickly, predictably and with minimal controversy.

  117. By the way, you’ll also find that a lot of city staff support transparency–it is a foundational issue in public administration. Also, many would prefer to post more stuff online because, quite frankly, that would be easier and less time-consuming than responding repeatedly to similar open records requests.

  118. A lot of improvements for transparency and open dialog will come when there is more of a spirit of openness to begin with. For example, at the Public Hearing last night on Paso Robles, during the citizen comment period, numerous people expressed their concerns about treated wastewater being used to irrigate the golf course. After the Public Hearing, the Mayor and Carma told reporters and some people directly that they are now exploring water options. It would have been real easy for the Mayor to make a statement to that effect at the end of the Public Hearing, before closing out the Public Hearing, so that everybody in attendance, along with those watching the Public Hearing on their television, could know right away about this important news.

  119. Debbie and I will be on Internet Television twice this week talking about transparency and open government here in San Marcos. Today (Wednesday the 25th) at 2:30pm we will join “Point/Counterpoint” on SMTX.tv. Tomorrow (Thursday the 26th) at 8pm we will join “We The People” on SMTX.tv. The number to call in to either show is 512.754.0084. We’d love to have folks call in! And, both shows will be archived at the SMTX.tv site for subsequent online viewing, too.

  120. Mr. Seebeck,

    Thank you for being the only City official (elected or appointed) who seems to “get it” and is engaging in a discussion with the citizens. Your comments go a long way towards clearing up confusion on many issues. If even four or five more elected and appointed officials and a few staff members would do the same, I do not believe we would be in the negative situation we are. It is not us against them. It is not growth vs. no growth. It is all about honesty and openness and you exemplify the type of person we should strive to elect and have appointed to boards and commissions. I may disagree with you on some issues but I trust you and respect you because of your willingness to inform the citizens.

  121. Here is a neat timeline of events to-date for the new “Open San Marcos” group and initiative:

    7/16 – sent Letter to the Editor at San Marcos Local News entitled: “How to gain more government transparency”
    7/28 – the group name “Open San Marcos” was created and we registered online website domains (.com, .org, and .net)
    8/16 – conducted first public meeting (workshop to brainstorm ideas), sifted through 127 ideas to create the “First Ten” list via ballot process
    8/20 – distributed first Open San Marcos newsletter (via email)
    8/26 – Debbie and Steve Harvey presented Open San Marcos on “Point/Counterpoint” (local weekly Internet television show)
    8/27 – created online discussion forum board
    8/27 – Debbie and Steve Harvey discussed Open San Marcos at “We The People” (another local weekly Internet television show)

    And more to come, including:

    8/30 – deliver “First Ten” list to Mayor and City Council Members, City Staff Leaders, and all the announced candidates
    9/1 – engage dialog with League of Women Voters on top issues for candidate questions
    9/3 – provide input to City Staff on the upcoming RFP for COSM website overhaul
    9/27 – conduct another Open San Marcos workshop at 7pm at San Marcos Public Library (open to the public, all interested people are invited)

  122. We are launching the “First Ten” on Monday, August 30, 2010. The launch packet includes the following documents:

    () Letter Introducing First Ten
    () First Ten from Open San Marcos
    () Sample Resolution for Open Government

    If you want to view or download a copy of these files, go to our website www. OpenSanMarcos.org (remove the space between www and opensanmarcos.org), and at the home page, click on the link to the Discussion Forum.

    At the Discussion Forum, the files are located in the “Document Repository” folder (it’s the last folder so you’ll need to page down to see it on your screen).

    Thank you very much for the continued encouragement so many people are providing to this initiative. Working together, we can create positive change for our beloved community!

    Steve Harvey
    www. OpenSanMarcos.org
    Independent / Non-Partisan / Non-Profit

  123. News 8 Austin interviewed me about Open San Marcos yesterday pm. Here is a link to the online copy of the television interview:

    news8austin.com/content/top_stories/273766/group-calls-for-a-more-open-san-marcos

    In related news, here is a sample website from another city that demonstrates various aspects of open government.

    “ABQ View – Welcome to the City of Albuquerque’s project for open government and transparency”

    cabq.gov/abq-view

    Doing a Google search string of “transparency city website” brings up a lot more examples, too.

    Steve Harvey
    OpenSanMarcos.org
    Independent / Non-Partisan / Non-Profit

  124. I just watched the News 8 clip, Steve.

    Great work, and thank you for conceiving this initiative, and for moving it forward.

    This is the beginning of a fresh wind, that will most certainly revitalize, and rejuvenate our community.

  125. Carma presented a packet of information to the Mayor and City Council. It included a summary of discussion points, a certified geologist letter, and an August 31st letter from EAA saying they like what they are hearing from Carma regarding the golf course, said to be signed by John Hoyt. During Q&A at the end, when I asked whether the materials would be posted online for all to see, Mayor Susan said they would need permission from Carma, or else I would need to go through the Information Request process. Carma gave permission right then and there, so we should see this material posted soon this week. Interesting that the Mayor would say they can’t necessarily post documents from developers online at the COSM website without receiving developer approval, at this stage when we are negotiating the details of the PDD and potential TIRZ. I guess we’ll save that question for another day.

  126. Steve;

    As I mentioned to you at the meeting, I find it both curious and pathetic when we are finding that our elected city officials on City Council must ask Carma’s “permission” to allow the voters and taxpayers to see and read those documents that pertain to our own interests, in the continued assurance for quality and purity of our drinking water, as well as those details and negotiations involved in how our tax money will be allocated by the city, and spent in this $20 million dollar TIRZ “deal”.

    Something is definitely skewed, and grossly out of balance with all of this.

  127. Why we need to see any documents from Carma:

    Carma released a Frequently Asked Questions about Pasa Robles. Below is one of the Q&A on Carma’s hand out.
    Q: Are there any scenarios where the City of San Marcos would have any liability for the TIRZ money?

    The City Attorney has ruled in his opinion that the TIRZ obligations would not be dependent on the City’s General Obligations.

    I submitted a FOIR to the City. I asked for the letter from the City Attorney where he made this opinion known. The City Attorney has emailed me with the information that he has issued no such ruling or opinion. Our City Attorney, Michael Cosentino, very politely and appearing to be acting in a full disclosure mode informed me that it would be impossible for him to evaluate the financial structure of the TIRZ because it has not gone to the council in a final form.

    I think the only conclusion we can make from the information at hand is that Carma has been less than truthful or let’s just call it what it is, a lie. I would challenge anyone from Carma to come on to the San Marcos Local News and explain to all of us this apparent untruth.

  128. Leave it to Mr. Sims to spot the cucaracha that can, often does, hide beneath the self-proclaimed mantle of being “all about transparency.” (I’ve heard he became cynical out of experience, not just academic training, which he also has.)

    Nonetheless, kudos to Mr. Newman, Mr. Seebeck, and the others who are moving toward SM’s citizens once again becoming self-determining and in control of their “Servants.” Still too bad about the too-often stated mandatory FOI requirements for ANY SCRAP of information, however apparently insignificant. All it would take in the vast majority of instances is for anyone in the room, mainly from the dais, to just offer the truth, and to render a copy of any document on the spot. An honest and legal person can do that, without deferring to the Supreme Being, and without fear of retribution or loss, no?

    And Curtis, you are not the only one irritated by the conduct of meetings in SM that insists one can ASK anything one likes, but that no answer is necessarily ever forthcoming. Or maybe a pat on the head and a “We’ll try to get back to you.” Especially with the limited legal public posting time, and the fact that the vote often happens AT the hearing, which sort of renders any questions or details moot. It’s not a matter of law, but of style and practice. I would say “preference,” but I don’t want to spoil a nice evening, when everybody feels like a winner.

  129. Newsletter #2 from Open San Marcos just sent. Didn’t get a copy? Then scoot on over to the Open San Marcos website (opensanmarcos.org) and fill out the “Contact us to be added to our email list” and click the “Submit” button. I’ll send you a copy of Newsletter #2, and you’ll automatically receive our bulletins from that point forward. In each email, there are options at the bottom for one to opt out, or update your email address, and such.

  130. Here is a link to the Open San Marcos Voters Guide featuring responses from the local candidates on transparency and open government:

    budurl.com/VotersGuide

  131. Is Shane Scott in the Lisa Marie Copoletta camp? Has he formally bowed out of the race? I guess he’s not serious.

  132. On Wednesday, October 27, from 6:30pm to 8pm, Open San Marcos will conduct a workshop on the 3rd initiative in our “First Ten” list (which is, “the City Council shall adopt a resolution for open government that articulates appropriate basic principles”). The public is invited to attend and participate.

    With thanks to The Tap Room, our workshop will be held in the meeting room in-between The Tap Room and The Coffee Pot. To get to the meeting room, simply walk into The Coffee Pot, head down the hallway and the meeting room is on the right side of the hallway.

    Double duty, if you’re hungry, or would like drinks, The Tap Room is right next to the meeting room they are letting us use, and they would be delighted to take your orders (it is always nice to be able to support our local businesses).

  133. If you were planning to attend the Wednesday workshop, then please note it will -NOT- be at the Tap Room Meeting Room. I found out Monday evening another group already has this meeting room reserved, so it is scramble time for me to find a new place.

    If you want to attend, then call me on my mobile 512.557.1298 and by then I will have figured out where we will conduct the workshop.

    Date: Wednesday, October 27
    Time: 6:30pm to 8pm
    Place: call Steve Harvey at 512.557.1298 to find out where it will be held
    What: Workshop on the 3rd initiative in our First Ten list (which is, the City Council shall adopt a resolution for open government that articulates appropriate basic principles)
    Note: The public is invited to attend and participate

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