Mayor’s Office Dismantling Open Government

by Casey Mills on January 28, 2005

Open government to all is a foundation of any democracy. Yet it was revealed yesterday that the Mayor’s Office has eliminated television coverage of both the Police and Planning Commission hearings as part of the mid-year budget cuts. The Mayor is further disengaging San Franciscans from their government.

You don’t have to be a political junkie to recognize the importance of revealing every aspect of the inner workings of City Hall to foster an informed and well-represented populace. Commission hearings have long been televised on San Francisco’s local cable stations as a way to provide access to governmental proceedings to all. Often times citizens cannot attend these events due to work obligations, a disability, or a simple lack of time.

While commission hearings may seem dry to some, extremely important decisions can often occur at them. Pieces of important legislation can be killed during a commission meeting, never to return, while bad legislation can be sent to the Board without being properly vetted.

If the public knows about these various pieces of legislation, they can organize around them to either fight for or against them. Without public awareness, city officials become the only participants in the legislative process. This situation could hardly be considered representative democracy.

The televised hearings, which recently became available online, represented for some the only way to know what their government was doing. Their elimination represents not only a more closed city government, but one that it is only accessible to those with the time, money and physical ability to make it down to City Hall during a weekday.

The canceling of the Police Commission hearings is the most troubling. Anyone who has attended one of these hearings knows they are often dominated by allegations of police brutality or lesser forms of police misconduct. Speakers often come from some of the most disenfranchised neighborhoods in our City, including Bayview-Hunters Point and the Western Addition.

The cancellation of Planning Commission hearings does not bode well for the City’s poorest either. Affordable housing projects often get their start in the Planning Commission, as do neighborhood fights over chain stores moving into their area. The elimination of coverage of these meetings opens the door to more behind-the-scenes deals between downtown interests and supervisors, allowing poorly thought out and harmful development to proceed, while affordable projects could be more easily killed.

Mayor Newsom can find private funding for televising these important commissions. His inability to do so represents an alarming movement to disengage San Franciscans from the political process.

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