Freedom of Information: Virtual meeting - Page 2

Open government laws prohibit online official discussions, but they've happened anyway
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Ironically, the TechConnect Task Force was charged with creating universal access to online discussions like theirs, although few legal experts think even that would nullify the requirement for open, public meetings in a physical – rather than virtual – setting.

According to a report released by the San Francisco TechConnect Task Force, 32 percent of Americans do not have access to the Internet. In San Francisco, certain populations are even worse off compared to national averages — for instance, women and the elderly.

"You have to consider if people are going to have equal access to meetings," Burke told the Guardian. "There is still a digital divide. As a public entity they have to be sensitive to this."

Recently, members of the city's Peak Oil Task Force inquired with the City Attorney's office about using Yahoo! Groups or a blog to increase efficiency on the all volunteer committee. Attorneys advised the group to stay away from Internet communication, as it can easily lead to prohibited seriatim meetings. Jeanne Rosenmeier, who is the chairperson of the task force, now spends more committee time trying to determine alternative ways to engage the public.

"It is certainly something that should be rewritten, to deal with modern technology so it corresponds with today's reality," Rosenmeier told the Guardian. "If we have a public e-mail listserv that anyone can sign on to, that seems transparent; or if we have a blog, that's pretty transparent."

In other cities that do not have sunshine ordinances, teleconferencing may be used legally under the Brown Act to conduct meetings. In Los Angeles, for instance, some boards and commissions teleconference when members would need to drive a few hours just to meet. There is some speculation that the language of the Brown Act could be augmented under this provision to allow for online communication, but there are no major groups pursuing the amendment.

In 2001, former California Attorney General Bill Lockyer wrote an opinion declaring the use of e-mail between policy-body members as an infraction of the Brown Act, even if the e-mails were made publicly available. "Members of the public who do not have Internet access would be unable to monitor the deliberations as they occur," the opinion states. "All debate concerning an agenda item could well be over before members of the public could [participate]."

According to the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, there have been no complaints filed concerning prohibited online meetings, however there have been public information disclosures of private e-mail messages over the years. Recently, a group of deputy city attorneys were required to turn over an e-mail correspondence when a member of the public filed a complaint.

While Peter Scheer, director of the California First Amendment Coalition, understands the frustration of government officials who must abide by the cumbersome laws, he thinks the tradeoff is well worth it.

"The whole rest of society uses the power of e-mail and the only business that can't use it is government, because they're subject to the Brown Act," Scheer told the Guardian. "But we made the tradeoff already in efficiency versus accountability, to force all meetings and information to be open to the press and public."

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