Commissioner Dan Miller sent me the following comments on my "TechnoLebo" post, concerning televising and webcasting of municipal meetings:
You recently posed a question in a post entitled "TechnoLebo" asking why aren't School Board and Commission meetings webcasted. I thank you for asking this question and I thought I would give you my thoughts on the topic.
I don't think it's a secret that I have been a strong proponent for broadcasting all public Commission meetings on television and the Internet. Last year I ran on a platform of bringing more transparency and accountability to our local government. To me, this naturally includes broadcasting our Commission meetings.
To that end, the Commission recently tasked the Municipal staff to create a report of broadcasting options and to make a recommendation. This report was completed and discussed publicly on March 24th.
The report separated broadcasting into two options: 1) webcasting, and 2) cablecasting. It stated that Bethel Park and Peters already cablecast, and of course, so does the Mt. Lebanon School District. It also noted that the Municipality is provided with three PEG (public, education and government) channels by Comcast and Verizon. The School Board broadcasts their meetings on channel 19. The report also recognized that the national trend is towards webcasting (see the Allegheny County Council for an excellent example).
There are obvious differences between webcasting and cablecasting. Of primary concern may be that webcasting carries with it an annual cost for hosting of approximately $28,000. Cablecasting would include a start up cost of between $9,000 to $21,000 (depending on type and number of cameras) but would then have a much lower annual cost attached to it. The School Board estimated it spent $30,000 for their equipment. Additionally, residents obviously need to have Internet access to view a webcast whereas cable access is likely more accessible to a greater number of residents at this time.
Both formats raise some content oriented questions. Should they be taped or live broadcasts? How long would the Municipality keep the tapes for? Who actually puts the program together? Does producing also mean content control? How do you handle editing? Are there any liability issues?
At first glance this may seem like a heavy list to debate. But yet Bethel Park, Peters and our own School Board have resolved such issues. Is this Commission really to say that they are too daunting for us to address?
It has also been raised by some that by broadcasting our meetings in any fashion we will be inviting grandstanding by citizens and Commissioners alike. Personally I find this to be a hallow argument. I have talked to members of our School Board and they have been unable to give me an example of such a situation. Also, if our constituents find are words or actions to be without substance or justification then they will be able to voice their displeasure at the next election. Additionally, if Commissioners may fear greater scrutiny of their words or votes, then perhaps this greater sense of accountability may foster more forethought in advance of them. I would probably benefit from that as well.
In the final analysis the Municipal report recommended cablecasting with fixed cameras- if the Commission wanted to proceed. This is where the issue now rests.
Ideally, I believe we should have our public Commission meetings broadcasted on the Internet and television. This would allow near complete access for all citizens (and since our School Board meetings often overlap, this would stop citizens from having to choose to attend one or the other in order to see what their local government officials are up to). I do believe that this could progress gradually with the first step being cable. I also can understand the possibility of waiting until 2009 for implementation given that such costs were not factored into this years budget. But I believe the Commission can take a strong forward-thinking approach to this topic and start the ball rolling for full disclosure in 2009. To me, whether it is online or on TV, this is going to happen eventually. I just wonder how many more municipalities need to shine light on their meetings before Mt. Lebanon wakes up.
Regardless, this fight was a campaign promise of mine so I will continue to raise this issue every year until it passes.
Thanks for the opportunity to respond.
5th Ward Commissioner
Labels: access to government