Sunshine Week: City of St Augustine adds Internet streaming


500-SUNSHINE-WEEK-2013After months of pressure and campaigning by Historic City News and our readers that started early last year, the City of St Augustine acted in favor of the voice of the citizens to add Internet streaming of city meetings directly from their website.

The City will publish a link on their website as the final testing is wrapped up, however, Historic City News was able to test a connection today and it appears to work perfectly — and in High Definition! From an easy-to-navigate toolbar above the video screen, the public will be able to select any live broadcast, as well as return to an archive of previous meetings of the City Commission, the Historic Architectural Review Board, the Planning and Zoning Board, and other events that were televised.

“This is a great accomplishment for transparency in city government,” said Historic City News editor Michael Gold, who has written letters, made telephone calls, visited personally with anyone he believed could help return this vital access to public information. “The confidence of citizens in their elected officials and those who administer their policies is strengthened when there are open meetings, open records, and ease of public access. And, in Florida, it is the law.”

The broadcast of live meetings over the local area cable television network operated by Comcast will continue; but, that doesn’t help residents or others who may not subscribe to cable television, or are out-of-town for a meeting, or have selected a different television provider — like satellite dish, ATT U-verse, or any of the Internet-based video content providers.

Through an Interlocal agreement with St Johns County Government Television (GTV), the Comcast feed of meetings, originating at City Hall, was rebroadcast from the secure, 100,000-square-foot, $16.5-million St. Johns County Administration Palace, until, without notice, the city was “unplugged” by the county.

“We were caught off guard when the county went in a different direction, one not dependent on GTV, in effect cutting off our service,” Director of Public Affairs, Paul Williamson wrote to Historic City News on December 6, 2013. “For a while, it appeared that there might be an avenue where GTV and the city could still collaborate, but it is looking more and more like we will have to go in our own, independent direction.”

Just prior to Thanksgiving, Williamson said that he received information on vendors, services and opportunities being offered by an array of vendors and that staff had just started reviewing it. His prediction was that the City could move quickly toward a resolution after the first of the year.

“I know this is a problem for so many who do not have Comcast cable, and yet do want to observe the city’s meetings without attending them,” Williamson told Gold by e-mail, in discussing the dilemma. “In a nut shell, we were caught off guard, and it has taken us a bit to determine that we quite likely have to go in a different direction, and hopefully one that will offer a higher quality of service.”

Three months later, they did just that. Our evaluation indicates that we can also receive the Internet broadcast over an Android smartphone using a Chrome browser. No plugin was required, it fired off immediately.

This new process also relieves a burden on the City Clerk, Alison Ratkovic, who previously had to make a DVD of the old meeting on a “per request” basis; recovering $1.00 for each DVD requested. Going forward, you can simply go to the city website and not only view or download the entire meeting, but also use a series of automatically created bookmarks to each agenda item to quickly get the viewer to the item of interest.

As St Johns County continues to get failing marks and needs improvement on transparency in the administration of the public’s business, hiding behind locked doors, surrounded by both private security and sheriff’s deputies, in an inner sanctum of “secured areas”, as if it were the Pentagon, the City of St Augustine and the City of St Augustine Beach receive high marks during this Sunshine Week evaluation by citizen watchdogs on, an initiative of the Washington, DC based non-profit Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

Kudos to staff and elected officials at the City of St Augustine and City of St Augustine Beach for being recognized as an outstanding example of openness in public administration.

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