Council online -- yea or nay?

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Is the world ready for Pittsburgh City Council, on demand?

We may soon find out, if the city completes a process started today, that would put video of council meetings -- live and archived -- on the Internet for anyone, anywhere to see. The city's Computer Information Systems department invited companies to send in proposals to put the notoriously feisty nine-member body's gatherings online.

"There's an old saying: The two things you hever want to see in life are people making sausage and people making laws," said Councilman William Peduto, who has pushed for Internet broadcast of council meetings for years. It's no longer applicable, he argued. "It's important that people see their elected leaders making laws."

Council meets more than 100 times a year, including its many special meetings and public hearings, and some of its more contentious sessions go on for hours. Wednesday's committee meeting, for instance, saw members lash a proposed fiscal recovery plan, and the vacationing Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, for nearly three hours before opting to postpone a tentative vote.

The meetings are broadcast live on city cable TV, and most are rerun in the evening, but they aren't available outside the city, and one must buy a custom-burned DVD to view an old meeting.

Last year council added $56,103 to the budget to pay for Webcasting. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl vetoed it, but council overrode the veto.

City Information Systems Director Howard Stern said he doesn't want the vast amount of data needed to digitally depict hundreds of council meetings on the city's servers. He hopes a private firm that specializes in video storage will be able to hold two years worth of council gatherings on its servers in a searchable form reachable through the city's Web site.

He said there will be no need to add to the city's small team of videographers and technicians, and that its cameras are adequate to the task, though he'd like to upgrade eventually.

If Mr. Stern has his way, taking council global will be just the beginning.

"Eventually, we should be able to stream anything" to the Internet, he said. "Ultimately, we should be able to do police, fire and [Emergency Medical Services]" graduation, promotion and awards ceremonies, he said.

The $56,103 allotted for the project, he said, "is going to have to" cover the cost. Proposals are due in by July 27.

Mr. Peduto said he plans to hold a special council meeting next month on using the Internet to promote democracy. He wants the city to pick a vendor that offers searchability so that if, for instance, someone wants to view all meetings at which Councilman Jim Motznik discussed trees, they can find them with a few key words and clicks.


Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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