Friday, December 26, 2014

The joy of public comment

This post was written in advance of its publication date. By the time that you read this, it will be Thanksgiving - but more importantly, it will be the two-year anniversary of a Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting.

Whoops, strike that - you DIDN'T read this on Thanksgiving 2014. For personal reasons I had to delay it for a bit. So this post deals with a Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting that took place OVER two years ago.

On November 27, 2012, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors had a meeting. Item 20 on the Board's agenda was to approve a contract with some consultants to write a request for proposal on behalf of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Why do I know about this? Because several months later, the consultants would finish their RFP, the RFP would go to several vendors (including my employer), and I would be part of the team that responded to the RFP with a proposal.

Incidentally, back when I originally drafted this post in October 2013, I fully expected that the Board of Supervisors would actually award the contract well before November 27, 2014. As it turns out, government sometimes moves slowly. Since the contract hadn't been officially awarded, I intentionally withheld my post until after the award. It's a common practice of mine to refrain from discussing proposals in which I participated until after the proposal is awarded. And you thought I was for effect. By the time you finish reading this post, you'll know where I got that phrase.

For those keeping score, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors officially approved a contract with another vendor on December 16, 2014.

But back to November 27, 2012, when they were selecting the consultants who would write the RFP that would go to the vendors. If you look at the official minutes from that day, you will simply see that the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the contract with the consultants, and simply asked to receive a report every 60 days on the progress of the consultants.

But in addition to the official minutes, the Board of Supervisors publishes transcripts of every meeting. The 2012 meeting transcripts are here. And if you go to the November 27, 2012 transcript, and turn to page 77, you'll see what actually occurred when item 20 was discussed. And before the supervisors could consider the meat of the matter, there was a period of public comment on the item, during which two people spoke.

The public comment from the two was not all that illuminating.

The first speaker, Daniel Jones, was at least somewhat willing to stick to the subject matter - sort of. The County wanted the consultants to write an RFP for a multimodal biometric identification system, so Jones began by speaking to this. (The transcript was in all caps; I have taken the liberty of changing it to mixed case text.) This is part of what Daniel Jones said:

I wanted to speak on the fact of what's this multimodality, modal biometric identification system for the information system for the Sheriff's Department? What is that? Are you going to do some more special testing on human beings so you can identify us all over the planet? Are you going to use facial recognition systems? Are you going to use Department of Homeland Security funds to do all this? Are you going to make this into a Nazi state?

When Godwin's Law is exercised in the first bit of testimony, you know you have a winner here.

After some banter with Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, Jones continued.

DANIEL JONES: ...Guess what, ladies and gentlemen. You don't need to know who I am. You already know who that is, don't you. Everybody in the state does by now. There's a reason for that.

SUP. YAROSLAVSKY, CHAIRMAN: All right, thank you very much.

DANIEL JONES: I'm not finished. Thank you. I'm holding for effect.

And it went downhill from there - something about getting restricted DMV addresses from his mom's bridge partner.

Then John Walsh came to the stand. In a sense, it's appropriate for John Walsh to speak to this topic. As you know, Walsh has been involved with law enforcement for decades, and therefore it's natural that Walsh would have an interesting in crime-solving techniques.

Unfortunately, that isn't the John Walsh who showed up. This John Walsh was a blogger. And while he didn't talk about Nazis, he didn't talk about biometrics either. He spent his time talking about a crooked deputy sheriff who was caught by the Sheriff's Department, but who was not prosecuted by then District Attorney Steve Cooley.

Finally, after public comment was over, the Board of Supervisors began looking at the contract with the consultant. But that probably doesn't interest you.

This is just one example of the public comments that are addressed to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors - and all such government boards. In fact, over two years later, on December 2, 2014, the Board of Supervisors specifically referred to these public comments. The occasion? Don Knabe was relinquishing his role as the chair of the Board of Supervisors (or, in Board terms, the "Mayor"), and Mike Antonovich was preparing to become the mayor of the County. As the baton was passed, Antonovich made the following comment:

Thank you, Don, thank you very much. Again, thank you for your past 12 months. I know you enjoyed the public comment the most of that time.

The audience laughed, and Antonovich continued.

And if you like, my first order will be to allow you to have exclusive rights to public comment.

Exclusive rights to hear illuminating comments such as the ones above? Knabe replied:

It's all yours.
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