Helping give voice to silent majority

From left, Selena Weng, David Lee and Fawwaz Fikkeri hold petitions to put the Open Government Act initiative on the November ballot. (Courtesy Joel Engardio)

It’s human nature to ignore things outside the scope of our daily lives — until we’re directly affected.

Parents discover and decry San Francisco’s confounding school assignment system when their kids turn 4.

Homeowners rage against City Hall’s prohibitive and nonsensical regulations when they need to add a bedroom for a second child. The rude awakenings are worse for entrepreneurs trying to grow a small business.

Fans wonder what is taking so long for San Francisco to get a world-class arena when they have to schlep to Oakland or San Jose for basketball games and concerts.

After enough exasperation — usually during a public transportation meltdown -— we declare we’re “mad as hell and won’t take it anymore!”

But then what?

Go to City Hall or the school board and speak your mind? Not if you work during the day or have kids to feed and put to bed in the evening. And good luck if you take time off or pay for a sitter.

Public comment for items can get pushed to any hour or not happen at all. If someone else’s problem takes three hours to resolve, your agenda item is left to languish.

That means the only constituents who get a hearing are the squeaky wheels with nothing else to do but spend their days and nights attending government meetings. It’s unlikely this type of gadfly is a forward-thinker who accepts change.

This explains why so many good ideas get shot down in San Francisco, even in a city with a population as educated, tech-savvy and accomplished as ours. It seems the silent majority of innovators are too busy creating the next revolutionary app to focus on revolutionizing City Hall.

But what if you could watch government meetings on streaming video from your phone wherever you are, give public comment via Skype and be guaranteed an agenda item would be heard at a certain time?

The technology certainly exists in San Francisco to bring city government into the 21st century, but is there enough political will to make it happen? A flood of previously unengaged residents easily connecting with City Hall could transform The City into a place of true progress. Yet change of that magnitude is scary for everyone invested in the current balance of power.

“If we depend on government to reform itself, we will be waiting a long time,” said David Lee, a political science lecturer at San Francisco State University.

So Lee and students in his “American Government” class decided to write the Open Government Act and put it on the November ballot. It will require all public meetings be streamed online live, allow residents to remotely comment and set exact times for agenda items.

They have until July 6 to gather nearly 10,000 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot. The effort is sponsored by the Chinese American Voters Education Committee, which Lee directs. Donors have contributed about $15,000.

Selena Weng, 16, is a summer intern on the campaign. The Lowell High School student joined after her experience asking the school board to let her continue taking advanced math instead of the new common core classes.

“I tried to speak at the meeting, but everything got pushed back a couple hours and they ran out of time,” Weng said. “I felt like my voice wasn’t heard. It was disappointing.”

Fawwaz Fikkeri, 22, took Lee’s class last semester. Originally from Malaysia, Fikkeri said he continues to gather signatures because he wants to stay in San Francisco after graduation and this initiative is how he can help make it a better city.

The students realize not everyone will support their initiative if it gets on the ballot. They just hope more San Franciscans are willing to embrace the future than oppose it.

Joel Engardio lives west of Twin Peaks. Follow his blog at Email him at

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