SAN PABLO -- This small city holds two seemingly contradictory distinctions: It has the highest concentration of video cameras surveilling public places in Contra Costa County and is the only municipality in the county that doesn't provide video coverage of its own City Council meetings, either on television or the Internet.
While the City Council voted earlier this year to spend nearly $900,000 over the next three years to put three-quarters of its 2.6 square miles under video or audio surveillance, it still doesn't have a single camera trained on its elected leaders while they conduct the public's business.
But the contradiction is soon to be no more. City Manager Matt Rodriguez said the city should have cameras installed in the chamber to provide live Web streaming and Web video archives of council meetings by March.
"It's long overdue, yes," Rodriguez said. "But the council knew they wanted to enhance community engagement and transparency; it was just a matter of finding the appropriate technology at the appropriate cost."
The package the council approved includes $39,000 in startup costs for equipment and installation, and $12,000 more annually in maintenance and uploading to the city's Web server. Meetings will be livestreamed from the city's website and archived for later viewing, Rodriguez said.
The decision to bring technological eyes into the chamber -- where fewer than a dozen of the city's 30,000 residents routinely attend meetings -- was a long time coming.
In September 2009, the council heard four options for implementing video recording of the meetings ranging from $15,000 to $500,000, depending on different levels of technology and services available, including outsourcing to Pinole TV and building an in-house city studio for broadcast. The council declined at that time "due to cost impacts and operational issues," Rodriguez said.
Other council members have quietly wondered whether the introduction of cameras and wide broadcasts would encourage more grandstanding by members of the public and insert more theatrics and acrimony into the normally staid proceedings.
While webcasting should be a welcome addition for residents, historians, gadflies and journalists, the city's meetings won't be broadcast on local cable television, which Rodriguez said would be much more expensive.
"We believe that we're heading into a more digital age, and people can download and livestream the meetings to their computers or portable devices in a cost-effective way," Rodriguez said. "Live tapings and broadcasts on local cable television would cost too much."
Richmond Councilman Corky Boozé, a self-described "transparency advocate," finds it surprising that his neighboring city has taken so long to bring cameras into its council chamber. Richmond meetings, which routinely draw more than 100 residents, are livestreamed on the Web and broadcast on community television.
"What better investment is there than making sure that the citizens can all monitor their elected officials conduct the public's business?" Boozé said. "No cameras in council meetings? I would never stand for that.
"I would fundraise if I had to to make sure that people could see the meetings on their televisions because not everyone has a computer or is computer literate," Boozé said.
While the new council cameras remain several months away, the city's public safety surveillance program has eyes all over the city. In addition to the $900,000 the council unanimously approved in startup costs, the maintenance of surveilling the public will cost about $75,000 annually, according to San Pablo police Chief Walt Schuld. Most of the city is under surveillance with either cameras, license plate readers or ShotSpotter audio-gunshot detection.
Rodriguez and Mayor Paul Morris defended the funding priorities, noting that violent crime is down significantly in the city since the program's implementation, and clearance rates for homicides are the county's highest. Morris said he is a "fiscal conservative" and was against putting cameras in the council chamber in 2009 because of concerns about the costs.
"There's zero crime happening in our chambers," Morris said. "If we're going to put cameras in the chambers, I wanted to be sure we did it for as little as possible." San Pablo's financial health is arguably the strongest in the county. Buoyed by tax receipts from a local casino, the city ran a surplus on its $27.2 million 2013-14 general fund budget, and boasts a reserve fund of about $14.5 million.
Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/SFBaynewsrogers.