Beat Reporter Project Proposal

Updated July 18, 2010

David Dahlbacka

Summary

The Beat Reporter Project has two purposes: (1) to help citizens keep track of what its government is doing; and (2) assert the right of individuals to observe government operations under the Open Meeting Law. This project is inspired by Jadwiga Forbes, a long-time Somerville activist who saw government as a participatory sport.

The Beat Reporter Project is a network of committed individuals, each of whom takes one or more issues or organizations as his or her beat. These Beat Reporters would post event announcements and event reports related to their focus of interest on a new Somerville Voices (SV) category list named “Beat Reporter” for access by the Somerville community.

Each Beat Reporter would choose a level and mode of commitment. There would be three levels of commitment:

  1. Tracker: A person who tracks an issue or organization on-line and in public media and announces coming events.
  2. Reporter: A Tracker who also attends events and reports on what happened.
  3. Researcher: A Reporter who also researches and posts background material giving the context for events.

There would be two modes of commitment:

  1. Issue-oriented. A person who tracks and reports on organizations and events associated with an issue of interest.
  2. Organization-oriented. A person who tracks and reports on a particular organization, such as a board or commission.

People might team up to share these commitments. For instance, one person might track an organization, another might attend meetings and write up what happened, and a third might research and write up background. Similarly, one person might track an issue area and also serve as reporter for a specific committee.

In addition to these roles, there could be special roles shared among a small group of individuals, such as:

  1. Bulletin Board Tracker: Visits the bulletin board in the lobby of City Hall and reports changes, particularly schedule changes, to the rest of the Beat Reporters.
  2. Agenda Tracker. Visits City Hall on request and gets copies of agendas, which are often only available on paper the day of the meeting.
  3. Permit Tracker. Visits the Permitting Department at Department of Public Works on request and checks on pulled permits.

Motivation

On November 19, 2009, the Somerville Design Review Committee held a public meeting to review and make recommendations on revisions to the IKEA Special Permit with Site Plan Review. IKEA wanted to incorporate “gateway” elements, including 80’ flag poles, on Assembly Square Drive. Although I was interested in the IKEA development and was tracking Somerville meetings at the time, I did not know about this meeting until the day after it occurred.

On March 4, 2010, a joint meeting of the Somerville Planning Board and Land Use Committee met to discuss zoning changes proposed by ten Somerville citizens that would, among other proposals, mandate disclosure of all applicants for a special permit at the time of application. It was not clear from the posted agenda that this meeting included a public hearing. I attended the meeting as an observer and discovered that it was a public hearing only when I read the paper agenda.

The usual response to such situations is to complain about lack of transparency in government. While it is useful to point out problems, mere complaining leaves the remedy to the discretion of public officials, while electing new public officials only changes who has the discretion.

Transparency requires both an open window and people to look through it. Although the Open Meeting Law gives people the right to observe meetings, in practice no one usually shows up. People feel they don't have the time, or that showing up wouldn't change anything anyway. The end result is that meetings are usually attended only by those who directly benefit from the outcome.

There is no guarantee that anything will change if people show up. The only guarantee is that nothing will change if people don’t show up.

Description of Need

To accomplish anything meaningful, any organization needs three things: information, people, and resources (usually money). Of these, the most important is information. No organization can influence events it does not know are happening. Information motivates and directs people and attracts and prioritizes resources.

Information is particularly difficult to get about government operations. Although citizens are legally entitled to observe government meetings, historically this has been inconvenient. I have several times showed up to observe a meeting, only to discover that it had been rescheduled. There was a paper notice on the bulletin board, and I discovered from checking the web site that the old notice had been taken down without cross-reference.

Note, however, that as of July 1, 2010, new guidelines for enforcing the Open Meeting Law went into effect:

Proposed Solution

The Beat Reporter Proposal describes a self-organizing framework for gathering information systematically and in a distributed manner. This will have the following benefits:

The following table summarizes the capabilities and tasks required of a Beat Reporter at the various levels of participation. People of different capabilities may team up to perform these tasks for a particular organization.

Beat Reporter Roles

Role Requirements Tasks

Tracker

  • Internet capability
  • Inferential ability
  • Timely and concise reporting ability
  • Tracks meetings online and, if possible, on physical bulletin boards. Government committees, in particular, may change meeting times and places on short notice (48 hours). Online notifications sometimes do not get updated in time.
  • Posts event locations, meeting times, and schedule changes on Somerville Voices, giving some indication of why the meeting is important.
  • Gets copies of or links to meeting agendas and posts them on SV. Meeting agendas are usually only available a few days before the meeting, or even at the meeting itself. These provide guidance on how important the meeting is.

Reporter

  • If solo, tracker requirements
  • Politeness
  • Persistence
  • Observational ability
  • The ability to remain silent when attending a meeting as an observer
  • If solo, tracker tasks
  • Attends public meetings of government committees as observers only. Any citizen has a legal right to observe meetings under the Open Meeting laws, but observers can only speak if invited to do so. Be prepared to wait out delaying tactics.
  • Become acquainted with participants and observers. People at such meetings are self-selected, and they have friends. If appropriate, collect contact information.
  • After attending a meeting, post a brief summary of relevant meeting events as a comment on the original event posting, if possible with a link to meeting minutes.

Researcher

  • If solo, reporter requirements
  • Subject area knowledge or the ability to find sources of such knowledge.
  • Good writing ability.
  • If solo, reporter tasks.
  • Research event background, including interviewing knowledgeable people as necessary.
  • Post background information or links.

 

Special

Bulletin Board
Trackers 

  • Tracker requirements
  • Lives close to City Hall

Notify the other Beat Reporters about relevant changes to the bulletin board, particularly schedule changes.

Agenda
Trackers

  • Tracker requirements
  • Lives close to City Hall

Get copies of meeting agendas and other documents on request by the Beat Reporters. For instance, the agenda for an important meeting may only be available on the morning of the meeting.

Permit
Trackers

  • Tracker requirements
  • Lives close to DPW offices on Franey Road

Check the status of relevant permits on request by the Beat Reporters. For instance, pulling a permit for construction may trigger certain environmental mediation requirements.

Media Support

I propose that we use the existing blog Somerville Voices as primary media support. I envision the following new SV features:

Beat Reporter Topic Category

There would be a new topic category, Beat Reporter, in parallel with the existing categories such as Accessibility, Development and Zoning, Transportation, etc. When added, topics would be assigned category Beat Reporter in addition to whatever other category might apply and appear on the Beat Report list.

Beat Reporter Root Page

There would be a Beat Reporter root page that would provide access to the following information in appropriate format:

Signup forms would be premoderated, as would the Beat Reporter topics themselves. To encourage responsible behavior, we would encourage people to sign up under their own names. We cannot prevent beat reporters from injecting their own opinions into Beat Reporter write-ups, but we can at least ask that they provide value in the form of facts.

Discussion

The following points have come up in discussions of this proposal:

Rollout Status

As of July 18, 2010, the following rollout actions have been taken:

  1. Proposed the Beat Reporter Project to Somerville Voices. The Beat Reporter proposal was accepted in March.
  2. Asked the SV sysop to add the Beat Reporter category. He did so in April, 2010.
  3. Began posting to Beat Reporter shortly thereafter. I also began asking around for people to join in.
  4. After noticing that some of my old event postings and notes were appropriate, asked the sysop to add them to the Beat Reporter category. He then changed my profile to allow me to edit my own posts.
  5. After noticing that some other people were writing up meetings, asked the sysop of allow me to change other people's categories. He allowed this. After asking permission to add their posts to Beat Reporter, I added them.
  6. Requested that the sysop make changes needed to support signing up in the SV profile.
  7. Wrote an introductory posting for SV. This introduces the Beat Reporter concept and lays the groundwork for signing up, once the profile support is complete.

The following are in process:

  1. Draft an introductory paragraph for the main Beat Reporter page. This contains the same material as the introductory posting, with further details about the profile support.
  2. Once the profile support is finished, work with the sysop to finish and publish the Beat Reporter main page.
  3. Write a follow up posting for SV, introducing the signup procedure.
  4. Continue posting and continue recruiting.

Note that I do not assign people to predefined lists of issues or committees. I have concluded this is impractical. I will instead encourage people to participate as they see fit.

Appendix: Preliminary List of Subject Organizations

This preliminary list contains organizations related to transit-oriented sustainable development in Somerville. Groups with other interests will develop other lists.

Somerville City Government

  1. Somerville Bicycle Committee
  2. Somerville Board of Aldermen
  3. Somerville Board of Health
  4. Somerville City Hall Bulletin Board (changes)
  5. Somerville Committee on Land Use
  6. Somerville Committee on Legislative Matters
  7. Somerville Committee on Traffic and Parking
  8. Somerville Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee
  9. Somerville Conservation Commission
  10. Somerville Design Review Committee
  11. Somerville Environment and Energy Committee
  12. Somerville Finance Committee
  13. Somerville Health and Safety Committee
  14. Somerville Housing and Community Development Committee
  15. Somerville Office of Sustainability and Environment
  16. Somerville Planning Board (Reporter: David Dahlbacka)
  17. Somerville Planning Department, Franey Road (permits)
  18. Somerville ResiStat (one per ward and special group)
  19. Somerville Traffic Commission.
  20. Somerville Traffic Department
  21. Somerville Zoning Board of Appeals

Regional and State Government

  1. Boston Central Transportation Planning Staff (CTPS)
  2. Boston Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC)
  3. Boston Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO)
  4. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA)
  5. Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)
  6. Massachusetts Department of Transportation  (DOT)
  7. Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EOEEA)
  8. Massachusetts Toxic Waste Cleanup.
  9. Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA)

National Government

  1. United States Department of Transportation (Region 1 – New England)
  2. United States EPA (Mystic River Region).

Other

  1. Assembly Square Public Advisory Committee
  2. Organizations in neighboring towns (Arlington, Cambridge, Medford, Everett).

Updated 19-Jul-2010