Introducing ‘Watch Berkeley Gov’

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Today I launched “Watch Berkeley Gov,” a YouTube channel with over 150 browsable videos from recent Berkeley City Council meetings. If you find these useful, please ‘subscribe’ on YouTube (free) and spread the word.

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Why did I do this?

Many of my neighbors have told me they’re interested in what happens at Berkeley City Council meetings, but don’t have time to go.

So I decided to try making these meetings more accessible by organizing them into short, subject-specific video segments (Berkeley has been posting the full videos for years, as part of its strong tradition of open government).

Now, instead of binge-watching Netflix, you can binge Berkeley gov. Take my word for it, these videos are interesting, informative, and occasionally very entertaining. My hope is that more of Berkeley’s 120,000 residents will watch them, and decide to get more involved in local government. It matters!

On a personal level, I wanted to understand in depth what’s going on in Berkeley these days, and watching these meetings seemed like a good way do it.

How to watch.

Go to Watchberkeley.org, or type Watch Berkeley Gov into the YouTube search box. On the main page you’ll find the most recent videos, and featured playlists. While watching each video, you can click ‘Show More’ in the text area to see full details from the city’s annotated agenda.

Or, visit the playlists page to browse by subject, e.g.: HousingHomelessnessPolice and crimeFire and disasterBudget and FinanceInfrastructureStreets and ParkingParks and RecFees and TaxesPeace, Justice, Equity – CannabisBusinessEnvironmentElections – City operationsCommercial zoning.

You can also ‘Subscribe‘ on YouTube (red button – free) for updates when new videos are posted.

How I did this project – more detail.

To distill several hundred hours of meeting video into the most meaningful, watchable segments, I had to be selective.

I began by downloading the full-length meeting videos from the city’s website.  These were originally recorded and shown on cable TV by the good folks at Berkeley Community Media. I then pulled this footage into Final Cut Pro, which my neighbor, video pro Kim Aronson, graciously taught me how to use. After a few hours of watching , I got pretty good at figuring out what the city council does and how to separate the wheat from the chaff.

I omitted the ceremonial portion of each meeting (honors and recognitions), and the ‘consent calendar’ portion (non-controversial items and agenda discussions). While interesting, these segments account for half (or more) of a typical five-hour Berkeley City Council meeting, and are less substantive than the ‘action calendar’ discussions.

The ‘action calendar’ is where issues and proposals are debated and voted on by council. So I made each action calendar item into its own video ‘episode’ (including special meeting items).

Many – but not all – of these episodes include public comment, which may be at the beginning or in the middle of the video. By California law (the Brown Act), anyone can speak before the Council on any agenda item, while that item is under consideration. There are also public comments made at the beginning of each meeting on non-agenda items.

One final note: I’ve disabled advertising on these videos (I’m doing this as a public service, not for profit), and I’ve also disabled comments. I wanted these videos to be educational, not a forum for debate… there’s other places for that.

Can you do this in your own city? (If you don’t live in Berkeley)

Absolutely… and you should!

I did a quick search and couldn’t find anyone else who’d tried to do this in the U.S. – which surprised me – but I may have missed something (if you’ve done this, please do get in touch!).

But the need is large. There’s so much focus on national and global events these days that it’s just natural for people to focus less on what’s happening locally.  Also, across California and the U.S., local news coverage is shrinking and endangered (see NYT|CALmatters|Nieman) as newspapers struggle with online competitors. This is troubling, because for decades they’ve been the ones doing the research, educating the public, and helping to hold government and elected officials accountable.

In Berkeley, we’re lucky to have the award-winning Berkeleyside team (I’m a big fan and supporter), but even they can’t go as deep as they’d like to on every topic.

Ordinary citizens must rise to this challenge. If you’re willing to put in the time, and $350 (for the video software and an extra hard drive), you can do something like Watch Berkeley Gov for your own city. You just need 1) access to the raw video (many cities, like Berkeley, provide a download capability) and 2) a legal right to use the video. A U.S. District Court ruling in 2015 clarified that city council videos in California are in the public domain. But this may not be the case in your state or city, so check first.

Questions or feedback on this project? See a mistake? Email me: Watchberkeleygov at gmail. Thanks!

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