Yoon's transparency push bears council fruit

By 
By
Dec. 23, 2008

Capitalizing on the political moment, Dorchester's at-large City Councillor Sam Yoon is clamoring for a little more transparency in city government of late, and last week his efforts produced a baby step forward on that.

Focusing in on the city's 34 committees, commissions and trusts, including the Licensing and Boston Retirement boards recently in the news as well as more mysterious groups like the Public Improvement Commission, Yoon authored an ordinance requiring all of their schedules, agendas, minutes, and members names published on the Internet. It was passed unanimously in the Dec. 17 Council meeting.

"The Mayor's office appoints, I'll say, 95 percent of these boards. That's, I believe, where the information resides," said Yoon at a hearing the day before the vote. "Being in an area where the Internet was created across the river, the way our city government uses technology should be way [better] than this."

The tone set at the hearing included a wider critique of the city's website compared to other metropolises across the country, including San Francisco, San Diego, even Charlotte, North Carolina. Those sites do a better job of modernizing city government while making it more accountable to its constituents, said Yoon.

"Everyone says 'That's the way the system works. Everything is done in secret,'" said Yoon spokesman Curtis Ellis. "That's why Sam is putting these proposals out there. We have to let the Internet searchers in here."

If Mayor Thomas Menino approves the ordinance and acts on it, the committees will be added to the site by the city's public information officer William Oates, a mayoral appointee.

At the hearing, Yoon was harping on not only the absence of specific information, but also how difficult it is to find much of the information that is already on the city's website, cityofboston.gov, a critique that Oates accepted.

"We always believe we can do this better," Oates replied. "I think the city, in a lot of different areas, was a leader in putting this information online. But as you say organizing all this information is a challenge, just in information architecture."

The latest step in that challenge, he said, was the addition of a city calendar in April. For the first time, he said, the calendar decentralized the task of adding information to the website. Instead of his office collecting the event information and putting it online, each department, board or commission is now individually responsible, with varying degrees of success. The implication was that any concerted effort to improve public information on the site would have to come from the mayor.

Another problem in Yoon's eyes is the unreadable minutes of the City Council. Written in a parliamentary-style, the meanings of descriptions of actions taken are difficult to glean for newcomers.

Yoon plans to submit a home rule petition to pave the way for "plain language" minutes by getting rid of a 1947 state law that bans all city-funded publication of the "substance of debate" in the minutes of Boston City Council. At the hearing, the council clerk and the City Hall staff director defended the old-style minutes, saying both that only one person habitually complains about them and to do more would cost a considerable amount extra.

Though the reason for the 1947 law has been lost to time, the mayor's Corporation Counsel advised Yoon's office that the law is still very much in effect.

Strangely, on Wednesday the mayor's administration promptly broke that law by publishing the substance of a debate that occurred in Dec. 17's Council meeting on City Hall's internal website "The Hub."

A "breaking news" report published there called "Council rejects idea for youth commission" cited Councillors Rob Consalvo, Mike Ross, Mark Ciommo and Bill Linehan's reasoning in opposition to a youth commission, such as it would "create another layer of bureaucracy" and "may not have neighborhood knowledge."

The transgression shows selective enforcement, a double standard or at the very least a law that is no longer enforced, according to Ellis.

"This stuff should be so easy, putting the information online," he said.

The proposals also show a newfound aggressiveness on Yoon's part, perhaps as he experiments with themes for a possible mayoral run or a campaign to hold onto his council seat in 2009.