Picture a recent meeting of the blue ribbon task force of the Marine Life Protection Act Initiative. The contentious debate in San Rafael has raged for hours. Suddenly there is a commotion near the edge of the frame, some noise as police present a man from entering the room.
It turned out a fisherman wanted to make his displeasure with the procedings known–by attempting to present them with a decomposed seal head in a big black plastic bag. The smell, witnesses said, was quite amazing.
Trying to perform for the cameras? Maybe.
This moment in state goverment in one of many you can watch it over at Cal-Span, a website devoted to video of meetings the Coastal Commission, the Fish & Game Commission and numerous other state bodies. The meeting was one of about 1,000 filmed each year, streamed live and then archived by AGP video, a Morrow Bay-based outfit that has been expanding their inventory for a decade.
This includes several state boards and commissions, as well as work for several counties.
"I don't know that anybody's doing it the way we're doing," said AGP's founder and CEO, Steve Matthieu. "There's nobody in the state of California except for us."
What AGP does involves resources similar to a large TV news station: 20 employees and eight vans sometimes covering six or seven meetings across the state in the same day. While AGP started out as a creature of public access cable, it has increasingly moved onto the web. The site now catalogs every state meeting they record. In the next month, they plan to add new search and archiving functions.
Like many legislators, Matthieu got his start as a local political troublemaker. Partly motivated by the flooding of his house in 1995-and some issue around nearby levees-he became a continual thorn in the side to the Morrow Bay City Council. He sat on the local planning commission for awhile, and spend his time trying-and occasionally succeeding-to find wrongdoing in local government. He eventually ran for a council seat himself, he said, and lost narrowly.
"I'm a political advocate who's just run wild," Matthieu said. "The whole thing to me is Civics 101."
Along the way he started filming meetings for local cable access. By 1997, Nancy Castle, his romantic partner for the last 25 years, left her job as a county drug and alcohol counselor to join the business.
"I thought this was going to be his hobby to get him out of my hair," Castle said. "Then I started investing money."
Their son, Roscoe Matthieu, designed their first website when he was 10. Now 21, he's a camera technician for the company. Steve Matthieu's cousin, Bill Kuykendall, also works for AGP.
In 1998, they filmed their first Coastal Commission meeting. This was when the body was debating controversial offshore drilling leases. The meeting ran 14 hours-with four breaks totaling half an hour. Matthieu said it was a formative experience, especially when it came to "squirming" through long periods of not being able to go to the bathroom.
In 2002, AGP shot their first Fish & Game Commission meeting. John Carlson Jr., a staffer who has since become the executive director of the commission, remembers it well.
"They just showed up," Carlson said. "They were not invited. Some of the commissioners didn't like the idea."
But they got a grant to support their work, and kept filming. Over time, Carlson said, commissioners realized that AGP helped them with their community outreach-especially when some of the more contentious meetings got 70,000 hits. When the money ran out, in 2006, the commission hired AGP to keep them filming. They now pay the firm around $120,000 a year to film and archive every meeting.
Having been around to watch the whole process, Carlson said filming the meeting had two seemingly contradictory effects. First, both commissioners and people making public comments began to behave in a more professional way because they were being filmed. Yet the public got to see the humor and the personal side of the meetings in a way that rarely made it into the minutes or news reports.
These days, AGP's videos are considered the official record for many of the meetings they shoot. The firm's growth was also aided by a 2006 executive order from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for the state to move towards filming all government meetings. Despite the cost, filming saves money over time, said Steve Martarano, chief spokesman for the Department of Fish & Game. While the Department is operationally separate from the Commission, he said, they were constantly sending people around the state to keep up with the meetings. These days, they can just watch from their desks.
"With budgets being what they are and people can't travel, but we're there," Martarano said. "The only thing you can't do is walk up to somebody afterwards and ask for clarification."
Martarano said that reporters are now covering meetings from their desks as well. He knows, he said, because he sometimes get calls if they have technical issues when trying to access the video.
"Newspaper guys were wary at the beginning, but then they realized ‘I can just sit home and drink a beer and write my story,'" Matthieu said.
In their effort to expand, Castle said, they had to learn about the state budgeting process. Now they instruct state agencies on how to get the funding to hire them-though they admit the recent budget crises have slowed their growth.
Still, Matthieu said he's gotten to live the audio/visual club nerd's version of a rock star dream. At a recent Coastal Commission meeting over the proposed toll road through the San Onofre Beach State Park, he had a dozen local news trucks and four network TV satellite trucks depending on his audio feed. Another time, he got to operate the board in C-Span's travelling bus.
"I get up every day and think, ‘Thank God I lost that election,'" Matthieu said. "Everything I've done is far more important that anything I would have done as a Morrow Bay city councilman."