San Diego On his official website, San Diego mayor Jerry Sanders solemnly promises that he will run an open government, featuring what he calls "transparent decision-making." But some of his people apparently haven't gotten the message. Take the case of the mayor's Science and Technology Commission, which earlier this year set up a subcommittee to study the possibility of building a municipal WiFi network to provide wireless Internet access for the citizenry. The notion has been a controversial one in other cities, including Philadelphia and San Francisco, which have prevailed over fierce resistance by commercial wireless and Internet providers like cable TV companies and mobile-phone-network operators, who fear that city-owned wireless services, if offered at low cost, would cut into their lucrative data franchises.
And San Diego, with its cluster of some of the world's most economically powerful cell-phone-industry giants, including Qualcomm, might not seem the most hospitable spot to mount a city-owned WiFi plan. So, early last month, as the mayor's science-advisory group was first grappling with the WiFi question, it was perhaps not surprising that members did not seem eager to share any news with outsiders.
The saga, documented in e-mails obtained from the City under the state's Public Records Act, began May 4, after Drew MacCullough, a member of the WiFi study group, was asked by a reporter about what was up with WiFi at city hall. MacCullough sent an e-mail to the group's chairman, Kristopher Lichter, a local executive for IBM. "The person from the Reader is Matt Potter," said MacCullough. "Though we did discuss the group, I explained to him that it is, as you said, 'very early stages' and off the map at this point. I also made it clear to him that I did not speak for the group or the City. He was interested in who is involved, but I did not give him names or contact info. I told him I would have to get back to him with contact info of others who might be interested in talking to him."
Later that day, Lichter wrote back to MacCullough, saying that Sanders's office had been told about the reporter's query. "But again, they are probably not going to comment. At this point, my suggestion is that you just let Matt know (if he contacts you) that he's welcome to reach out to the Mayor's Office directly."
That afternoon, Sanders press aide Fred Sainz circulated an e-mail to some city staffers, making the mayor's position clear. "To all copied here," wrote Sainz, "Do not speak with any reporters from the Reader. Tell them that you do not speak with reporters from the Reader. No additional information or follow up necessary. Thanks."
Since then, despite Sainz's blanket order to stonewall on the WiFi story, some city officials and commission members have been more forthcoming. MacCullough and a colleague agreed to be interviewed about the WiFi issue. And after receiving the Reader's request for records in mid-May, staffers advised members of the WiFi subcommittee that they would have to abide by the state's Brown Act, requiring that future meetings be open to the public with notice provided in advance.
"Participants must comply with the Brown Act requirements," said a May 19 memo from staffer Toni Dillon. Those requirements included "discontinuing email discussions between Commissioner members and meeting participants discussing in advance or post meeting Agenda topics." In addition, "A meeting schedule through the end of this year must be decided upon and accessible to the public -- this decision must be part of our next meeting's Agenda."
At that gathering, June 6, which featured a teleconference with Dianah Neff, Philadelphia's chief information officer and the power behind that city's successful public WiFi drive, committee members were eager to open their doors to public participation. "We need to be more inclusive early on," proclaimed committee member Martha Dennis, a La Jolla telecom venture capitalist. Only the month before, she had declined to disclose names of the group's members.