New interactive website aims to increase City Council transparency

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Residents in the city of Berkeley can actively engage with the Berkeley City Council through a new website developed by local community activists that consolidates city documents and public discussion in the spirit of fostering increased political transparency and awareness.

More than six months in the making, the Berkeley Council Watch, launched on April 1, consolidates City Council material by linking to meeting agendas, minutes and summaries. The website also hosts a voting feature for community members to express their opinions on upcoming agenda items and a forum to encourage informal dialogue.

"There are decisions being made, significant decisions that impact the ways our city is governed ... people would like to know about it," community organizer and website co-developer Jacquelyn McCormick said. "It's supposed to be a one-stop shop."

Former Mayor Shirley Dean, another co-developer of the site, said that there is a lack of information in the community, adding that the new website will facilitate greater modes of communication between the council and its constituents.

"If you're ever trying to find a city record, it's a total nightmare," said neighborhood activist and co-developer Dean Metzger. "The (city's) computer system is so antiquated."

According to Dean, the website hopes to engage with active transparency initiatives like the city's Sunshine Ordinance, a 2012 ballot initiative, and Open Government Ordinance, which was adopted by the council in March. These efforts strive to encourage a fair agenda process and greater access to public records by bringing the city into "modern technology" and increasing regular council meetings.

Councilmember Jesse Arreguin said he believes the site will increase transparency amid a "gap" of news coverage pertaining to the City Council. He said he hopes the site will develop into a more comprehensive forum featuring a "report card" that details how the council has voted in the past.

"It really helps in terms of getting information," Arreguin said. "It has ways to connect the people to the political process."

Metzger, who said he believes the council acts as a "closed society" to serve "limited interests," added that the website differs from similar informational sites because it requires voters - those interested in expressing their opinions via the website - to identify themselves, a method he believes will ensure voting, especially on controversial issues, is unbiased and limited to city residents.

Although Councilmember Susan Wengraf said the website is beneficial to the extent that it encourages residents to be more involved with city government, she said she is wary of the accuracy of the information provided in the meeting summaries. She added that the city website already provides public access to video records of City Council meetings.

"I think our government is very open actually, and I think communication with constituents is very open," she said. "It's no secret that these four people have points of views ... and if the goal is sunshine, then there should be no opinion by those paying for it."

However, McCormick said that the site serves as a helpful community tool that is "totally objective" and appealing to all audiences. She added that although the topics features on the website are limited to "hot" agenda items, the topics are subject to public comment and opinion.


Yousur Alhlou covers city government. Contact her at [email protected]

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