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High-tech kiosk idea gets kicked to the curb

Journal North

Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales has backed off from a proposal that would have allowed 7-foot-tall information kiosks to be installed around town featuring interactive “electronic reader boards” that would provide advertising, information on events, activities or attractions, public notices and walking or driving directions.

The move comes after the city had already issued a request for proposals for such kiosks, which would also be Wi-Fi hot spots, and received a single proposal – from the company that had previously made a presentation to city officials about the idea.

The RFP went out in July before the City Council ever considered Gonzales’ proposed ordinance that would change the city’s sign code to allow the kiosks, which are in use in Kansas City, Mo., New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities.

Some opposition to or concern about the kiosks and their screens – something like bigger versions of computer or ATM screens – had already surfaced, from anti-Wi-Fi activists who maintain the technology causes health problems and from others worried about what they would look like in Santa Fe’s historic areas. Gonzales’ proposal stated installation of the screens would require approval of the city’s Historic Districts Review Board.

The only City Council committee to consider the ordinance voted against it. City staffers present for the Public Works Committee meeting in September couldn’t identify the vendor involved, and councilors questioned issuing an RFP for a vendor before any decision by the council to accept the project.

Councilor Joseph Maestas said the city was putting “the cart before the horse on this one,” according to the meeting minutes.

“We might need to start over on it to determine whether we need it rather than reacting to a private-sector deal,” he said.

Councilor Chris Rivera was more blunt, the minutes say. He described the proposal as lacking transparency. “It smells funny and it doesn’t sit well,” he said.

The Journal also encountered delays when asking about the vendor. The newspaper first asked for the vendor’s identification last Friday, Oct. 28, and was provided with the name of the company – Smart City Media, of New York – only on Wednesday.

“If people have been cautious, I think it is likely because the RFP has not been officially awarded yet,” said city spokesman Matt Ross.

Later the same day, Ross said that Gonzales “is planning on pulling the ordinance.”

“It was pretty clear it was not moving very far very fast,” Ross said.

But Ross said there was no legal or procurement code problem with issuing an RFP before the City Council authorized the project, because there could be no commitment on entering into a contract with a vendor without the council deciding to move forward on the project.

Smart City describes its plan as a public-private venture. The city would share in revenue generated from ads displayed while people used the machines.

Apparently, one justification for seeking an RFP first, before a kiosk program was endorsed by the council, was that the winning vendor could provide specifics in its bid for a Santa Fe contract. “A potential vendor would recommend the program in their proposal,” City Attorney Kelley Brennan said at the September council committee meeting.

One problem has been that the proposed ordinance itself is highly technical without providing a good description of the kiosks, other than that they could be up to 7 feet high, 3 feet wide and 2 feet deep, with an “active sign surface” that does not exceed 8 square feet and does not “blink, flash, rotate, scroll” or “change in illumination” or “intensity.”

The purpose of the kiosks would be “to facilitate wayfinding and provide real-time information on local businesses, services, programs, activities and events, and public access to the internet through wireless technology in accordance with a city-wide program.”

“Opinions vary on where they should go,” Ross said.

Geno Zamora, a former city attorney now in private practice and representing Smart City, said in a statement: “In Santa Fe, you often see initiatives that are either for tourists or for residents. The proposed kiosk wayfaring system serves both by promoting local businesses, distributing important city information and enhancing public safety. The City has the opportunity to bring equity by connecting all areas of town and generating significant revenue to fund City programs.”

Before Ross said the mayor was pulling the proposal, he said the city would be sensitive to any concerns about Wi-Fi or how the kiosks fit in with Santa Fe. “That’s why we have a democratic process, to make those kind of decisions and hear those kind of concerns.” At the September Public Works meeting, City Attorney Brennan said, “We don’t want it to look like Las Vegas.”

The screens would allow pedestrians to scroll through a menu or icons for various kinds of information, with users choosing among languages. Advertisers could promote events or restaurants, and users of the machines could buy tickets to something like the opera or make dining reservations, Ross said.

In Kansas City, Smart City’s screens can also take viewers to reports on the city’s professional sports teams and can be used to contact emergency services such as the police. Under the proposal from Smart City, Santa Fe would get 25 percent of the revenue generated by the kiosks, Ross said.