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Former City Councilwoman Donna Frye has been largely quiet since she was hired as Mayor Bob Filner’s director of open government — even as questions swirled over her new salary and work schedule.

But she’s starting to speak up now that the open government section of the city’s website has been unveiled. The city plans to post documents there to facilitate compliance with a series of transparency laws passed by the City Council and voters last year.

She also helped spearhead a submission to the Knight News Challenge, a contest of ideas sponsored by the nonprofit Knight Foundation, to improve the way citizens and governments interact. Winners of the contest receive a share of $5 million in funding and support from the Knight Foundation to make their idea happen.

The Knight proposal — developed by Frye, Ben Katz, CEO of local software development company JSX Inc. and Joe Lacava, chairman of the city’s Community Planner’s Committee — would create a system that allows community planning groups to quickly and easily post their meeting announcements, agendas, minutes and supporting materials online.

Frye sat down with me Thursday to discuss how the proposal can make community planning groups and their ideas more accessible.

Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

What interests me about your idea is that it starts with community planning groups. I cover them a lot, and maybe people who work in City Hall or pay very close attention to local government are aware of them, but it’s really a layer of government that many people don’t even know exists.

No kidding. They don’t know how to find information, their agendas, there’s almost never any minutes and there’s certainly almost no background material.

Is that why you started with community planning groups, rather than another government body?

We started with community planning groups for a couple reasons.

The first is that the community planning groups have to go through a bizarre process to even post an agenda. They usually have to submit it 10 days in advance, even though according to the Brown Act, they only need 72 hours notice. So then they would send it to the person assigned to post it as a courtesy. But then, if that person were not there, they’d have to send it to someone else, who would send it to the IT department, who would possibly then send it to Texas. So we’re talking about a very long lag time to post a very simple agenda.

That was No 1: In order to facilitate the community planning groups, it’s much easier if they can just post it themselves, have a place to post their own agenda, and we’ll establish a format or template for them so that it’s easy to do and everyone can comply with the Brown Act. But this gives them more ability to, say a project comes forward a week before the 72-hour provisioning notice kicks in. They would have not been able to docket it because they would have already sent out their agenda. So it allows them a lot more flexibility to control it.

The second reason we picked community planning groups, and why I was happy to work with Ben (Katz) on this, is that they are really the only recognized voice of communities, as far as officially by the city of San Diego. They’re making decisions that are big-deal decisions — land-use decisions — that influence and impact everybody’s daily quality of life. So it’s sort of the best of both worlds. It’s taking kind of the hearts and souls of these communities, and it allows us to work across the city, so we’re not picking out one portion, we’re saying the entire city needs to have more empowerment.

It’s also the case that these planning groups, due to their lack of visibility or awareness, many of those board members are elected with 100, 150 votes. That many votes can get you into a decision-making role on the board. Could this increase their profile?

I think it’ll help. This is the basics. This is putting out minutes, agendas, backup materials to start that process. And then, work through training, for example, with ‘How do you comply with the Brown Act?’ or ‘How do you make sure the public discussed this point?’ ‘How do you make sure that people have a place to go to get consistent information and know that you’re liable?’ It will raise the agendas and all those types of things in public awareness. The public will be able to find a site where they can go, have a consistent format and actually get the answers they need. I think that will help.

Do you think in addition to making the process more transparent and open, you could see more effective decision-making bodies?

It’ll certainly be more efficient, just from a city bureaucratic perspective. I think it’ll also be more efficient from the standpoint that a lot of people aren’t clear on basics of the Brown Act. The agendas are always different; if you look at one community planning group’s agenda and another community planning group’s agenda, it can be very different. And so if you get to the point that everyone is using the same format, and people get used to and accustomed to that, you’ll get people who will look at it and, yeah, if you list an item on the agenda, you have to provide a description, so the public knows whether they want to show up for the meeting.

There are ways where you can post an agenda and quote “comply with the law” end quote, sort of, by describing something in a very obtuse way, so that people have no idea that you’re going to build a landfill next to their house. You could write things in such a way that people really don’t understand what’s happening. So the idea is to make this informative, easy to access, easy to participate and especially with those backup documents — that’s a big deal.

The next challenge would be actually getting it in front of people, so that it isn’t just people like me who use this sort of thing.

That’s where I’m counting on the JSX, the Ben Katz, Joe Lacava, the open government folks to then say, ‘Now we have it, how do we get it out there? Can we figure out other applications?’ So working with the folks from Code for America, and some of the other folks that have all this knowledge. They will help figure out ways to make this happen. So again, this is the start. But you want to have a baseline, and then you can measure off of it. This week we had zero. Now we have this. And make sure that whatever it is that people are looking for, they aren’t going, “I can’t find it!” I want to try to make it so the public has the easiest access to very difficult documents and information.

The project idea really stresses that these would be machine readable.

Ben’s the technical guy. That’s all Ben.

Sure. But from your understanding, what makes that so important?

I think what it means is, how you code documents, if you code them a certain way, that everyone can access, then they can be pulled quickly and everyone has the opportunity to access them. As opposed to documents where we’re talking different languages. So if you have a standardized language, I guess — and I’m not using the right terminology, Ben’s the smart one — that you can actually get that information out to the public in an open source so that everyone can use it and they can get it.

Update: After our conversation, I reached out to Katz to let him explain the importance of an open-source, machine-readable format for this project.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation:

Let’s say you know what a community plan is, but don’t know anything about programming languages. What does being “machine readable” mean and why is that relevant?

The advantage of it being machine readable is in the ability to pull information in a more selective way. So, to take a very specific example: If you wanted to know about every planning decision that happens within five miles of your house, by having the addresses in a standard, machine-readable format, we can figure that out, and we could alert you of that.

You could set up automated alert systems.

Yes … and not just the geographic information! That’s just one piece of data. What we’re talking about is lots of pieces of data, each one with the ability to search on that. …

You could even, some of these issues, start crossing through different jurisdictions. If there’s an appropriate standard being used across jurisdictions, you’d be able to see and search across all of those. …

And you’ve hit on what is the important distinction. There’s really two different layers of this. One is the ability to quickly and easily find particulars that are of interest to you. And the second is the ability to relatively easily generate reports showing greater patterns.

Disclosure: Voice of San Diego receives funding from the Knight Foundation, and has submitted its own entry to the Knight News Challenge.

I’m Andrew Keatts, a reporter for Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you’d like at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0529 and follow me on Twitter:

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Andrew Keatts

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org...

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