Chambers may be a click away

The mayor who schedules monthly lunches to discuss concerns with residents is suggesting that locals should be able to connect with their city government in a new way.

In a recent memo to council members, Mayor Warren Lieberman proposed that residents who follow the meetings from home via webcast could participate in real time by phoning in or e-mailing questions for an allotted period of about 15 to 20 minutes.

The calls or e-mails could be sent anonymously, since community members are not required to state their name or residence when they speak at meetings, the mayor said.

Councilmember Coralin Feierbach, however, is strongly opposed to the idea, saying the mayor hasn’t considered that the calls or e-mails could potentially disrupt meetings and open up a Pandora’s box of free-speech issues.

“If you look at the blogs that are on some of our local newspapers, there are some really vitriolic comments made against people,” Feierbach said. “How are you going to oversee it?”

Feierbach said she fears the anonymity would encourage troublemakers to hurl insults, death threats or pretend to be someone they’re not. She said the city would have to hire someone to proctor the calls and e-mails coming in, which could cost taxpayers.

“Who’s going to monitor the four-letter words?” she said.

Lieberman, who declared 2008 “the year of the community,” said the costs of such a service would be minimal and would not require a new hire. Any current staff member, including the mayor, could be tasked with monitoring the e-mails and calls, he said.

“The vast majority of input we will get are from people who are seeking to get involved,” he said. “A lot of people want to be involved in local government, but say it’s too difficult to find the time.”

The idea, Lieberman said, was inspired by a similar “virtual” town-hall meeting held by Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, which allows residents to phone in questions.

Last year, a similar idea brought to Belmont’s City Council was batted down over concerns the service would be difficult to operate in council chambers.

This time, however, the mayor said he has asked city staff to find a way to make it work.

He said he hopes the staff will return with a feasibility report before his term as mayor ends in December.

maldax@sfexaminer.com

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