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Local officials are hoping social media will help engage more citizens 

It’s going to take a custom piece of software running all day, every day, for about three months to convert AGP Video’s archives into the new file format.

“When I started, there were three of them,” CEO and cofounder Steve Mathiew remembers of the video file formats he used when the company was founded in 1998. “And only the .wmvs have made it through all of time—until now—but their day is pretty much done.”

With thousands of archived videos of government meetings from around the state, AGP is in the process of switching from its .wmv file format to MPEG-4. The latter file format is friendlier across multiple computer systems and Internet browsers (“Chrome gives us a little bit of grief,” Mathiew said), both for archived videos as well as live streams.

Their conversion to a newer, more widely used format is just one sign of a local government shift into a highly digital and highly social world, a transition with implications that 
stretch beyond the last three letters of a video file.

“It’s another new-in-the-county, first idea ever, so we’re prepared to get abused for it,” Morro Bay City Manager David Buckingham joked about the new way Morro Bay will handle videos for City Council meetings.

During a recent phone interview, Buckingham said the city clerk was in the process that moment uploading video of the last City Council meeting to YouTube. And while the platform is ubiquitous for everything from cat videos to guys getting hit in the balls, local governments have not previously taken full advantage of it—at least, not in Morro Bay.

The idea is simultaneously simple and somewhat revolutionary: All video recordings will be uploaded to the Morro Bay YouTube channel, and individual agenda items that go before the City Council will be tagged and searchable.

“It’s actually going to lighten the workload a little bit because minutes won’t have to be as detailed,” 
Buckingham said.

Morro Bay does not pay to archive videos through the site slo-span.org, which some other cities in the county utilize. Previously, local government wonks would have to watch the live stream online or on Channel 20. And anyone who missed the live broadcast would have to wait for a rerun, then sit through the entirety of the meeting and wait for their item of interest.

However, with the meeting videos available through YouTube, users can skip extraneous agenda items, Buckingham said.

Mathiew said some AGP clients have tried the YouTube route before, but had issues with uploads due to the length of the average government meeting.

Buckingham seemed optimistic that the new system will allow more residents to view and participate in their local government, without adding too much staff time.

“This isn’t a response to something negative,” he said. “It’s just trying to do more positive. I personally saw that it must be frustrating to somebody who wanted to watch the meeting but had to wait for a rerun on Channel 20, and we thought, ‘This is the digital age; you ought to be able to get that information any time, anywhere.’”

And increasingly, local government agencies are moving into new channels that make it easier for people to participate, according to Michael Latner of the Cal Poly Political Science Department. Latner said that there’s an irony within local government, which is one of the most directly impactful influences on our everyday lives, but very few people actually participate.

“When you have such low levels of participation, you get very entrenched interests that, even if they’re not resistant to change, they have such a disproportionate influence on the process that you really lose accountability to the public as a whole,” he said. “Democracy doesn’t work if you only have those with the highest stakes in the game fighting for control.”

Most local participation comes from a demographic that is typically older with time to spare, or entrenched interests that have money to win or lose, and it can steer local government away from people who are simply unable to participate in person.

Pismo Beach recently updated its website as part of wider effort to reach out, and city officials are making more of a push toward social media. As of this writing, the city was also scheduled to launch a mobile app, “Pismo Pulse.”

“Rather than increasing the burden on cities, cities that are effectively adopting these technologies are increasing efficiency,” Latner said.

Pismo Beach Administrative Services Director Nadia Feeser described the app as “a one-stop shop for everything.” And while Feeser and Latner admitted that some residents are resistant to social media or other new technologies, the goal is simply to give more people access. In fact, Feeser joked that it would be “awesome” if the city had an influx of traffic large enough to crash its site.

Likewise, Whitney Szentesi (pronounced “sen-tee-zee”), the social media and communications analyst for the county, said the goal with new technologies is not to ostracize people who are less tech savvy, but give others a new way to interact with local government. The county, for example, has a page that directs to the various social media accounts of its different departments. The Sheriff’s Office is big on Facebook, she said, while the Animal Services created a Twitter account specifically for lost pets: @SLOLostPets.

“We’re looking for new ways to engage those folks,” Szentesi said.

 

Senior Staff Writer Colin Rigley can be reached at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

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